As many of the people I follow on social media headed to bed on January 2 alarmed by President Donald Trump’s decision to tweet out a penis size comparison challenge to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, framed as a threat of nuclear war, Matt Gertz of the progressive advocacy group Media Matters was undertaking the valuable investigative work of figuring out which Fox News segment had set Trump off.
Kim’s nuclear button boast had, of course, come more than 24 hours before Trump’s tweet. But rather than learning of it through intelligence or diplomatic channels and considering a response, Trump appears to have found out about it a day late via his TV and decided to fire off some tweets.
The tweet was just one of many inflammatory statements by Trump over a long day of bizarre tweeting that included everything from fanning the flames of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to attempting to take credit for airplanes being safe, calling for the prosecution of a top aide to Hillary Clinton, attacking the new publisher of the New York Times, and plugging Lou Dobbs’s show on the Fox Business Network. Along the way, he also reiterated a New Year’s Day dig at Pakistan.
It’s a puzzling array of topics that at first glance appears to defy any explanation as a communications strategy or a set of policy priorities.
But the source turns out to be clear: It’s all Fox News. Per Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, that was the common pattern throughout Trump’s remarkably active Tuesday of tweets.
Everything from Trump’s alarming suggestion that the Justice Department prosecute former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin to his absurd contention that he deserves credit for an aviation safety streak that dates back to 2009 had its origins in a Fox News segment.
Trump skeptics probably shouldn’t waste their time sowing fear of nuclear conflict in Korea — Asian stock exchanges, including in Seoul, do not appear particularly alarmed about Trump’s social media antics — but his allies should take more seriously the notion that this is a terrible way to do the job of president of the United States. Even at its very best, cable news is not an ideal source of information about the world, and the Fox News shows that Trump prefers are not cable news at their very best.
Trump-era Fox has frequently been compared by its critics to a state broadcasting network in an authoritarian regime. But the Soviet Union’s top leaders were not relying on their own propaganda outlets for information about the world. For the president to govern effectively, actual problems need to be brought to his attention. But in the propaganda bubble that Trump prefers to inhabit, there is no endless darkness in Puerto Rico or falling life expectancy amid a growing opioid crisis.
Even on the economy, which is definitely the bright spot of Trump-era America, it would behoove the president to hear some skeptical notes. As the labor market continues to improve, for example, the actual pace of job gains is slowing down, and the economy added fewer new positions in 2017 than it did in any of the five previous years. And the increased business investment of 2017 seems to have been largely driven by higher oil prices, which revived the fracking trade after a pause. That doesn’t alter the fact that the basic economic situation is good, but a realistic consideration of strengths and weaknesses would help the president see potential problems and ideally avoid them.
Instead, we have a president who not only avails himself of information cocooning to maintain the support of his shrinking base but actually inhabits the bubble himself. So far that mostly hasn’t ended in disaster for everyone, because the country mostly hasn’t been tested with an urgent crisis. But where crisis has arrived — whether that’s Puerto Rico’s power grid or North Korea’s nuclear ambitions — Trump has proven entirely incapable of rising to the challenge or even acknowledging what the dimensions of the challenge are. And it’s exceptionally unlikely that we will get through three, or seven, more years without facing more challenges.