The destruction of America’s political and media establishments
By: Francis Ghilès
People in the world beyond the US who live in authoritarian regimes – from the Middle East to Asia, Africa and South America are scratching their heads in disbelief. A list of features of the US presidential campaign and the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency remind them of presidential or general election campaigns at home. Suggestions that the intelligence service is involved in the smearing one of the candidates, talk of foreign interference in the election, let alone conspiracy sound familiar in many Middle East countries but also in Turkey, Eastern Europe and Asia. The new president’s utter contempt for the traditional media is a familiar situation but less noticed is the talk of rural voting against urban bastions. Foreign correspondents resorted to the puzzled look they often have when reporting the Arab world, betraying their contempt for the ordinary people they were interviewing as would have been familiar to those who watch many Western channels coverage of the Middle East.
Sectarianism and tribe are new words being used to cover US elections although their reality has been there for anybody who wanted to see for some time. The bulk of the Western media seems to be discovering small town and rural America with the same bewilderment with which they discovered that a few hundred miles from the Tunisian coast, with its hotels so loved by tourists, areas of great poverty were there for all to see. Likewise when the deep state is evoked in the US, that hardly surprises seasoned observers. The existence of the deep state is a reality in the US and in most other major nations, be they democratic or not.
President Trump has accused the mainstream media of lying and engaging in secret conspiracies to undermine him, he refused to take questions from a CNN reporter which is a departure from standard practice in America. The media in turn accuse Trump of lying – the new president’s relation to the truth is indeed devoid of the political correctness which passes as good manners in many Western capital pressrooms. But lies are hardly new in the West. Many of America’s friends might have been willing to believe that the US had blundered in Iraq in 2003 on the basis of false intelligence, rather than deliberately lying to make the case for war. But across Africa, the Middle East and much of continental Europe, most people have lost faith in US and many of their leaders speaking the truth for some time. Threatening the press publicly in the US is new, but threatening whistle blowers and wayward journalists is not. The lies of Mr Trump are frequent and flagrant but the dishonesty of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush with regard to Iraq started the rot and immensely damaged the image of the US abroad and the future of democracy in that country.
The truth is that the accuracy of news in print and on the air has declined in the West in recent years – and the Middle East has been the focus of much manipulation. Be it Iraq, Syria, Iran or Libya, distinguishing truth from falsehood in western news is becoming increasingly difficult. If president Trump increases the lies out of the very top echelon of power in the US, he will certainly open the floodgates of Russian dishonesty. Vladimir Putin claims that everybody lies and manipulates but he was unable to convincingly deny that Russian weaponry was used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. Were Trump to resort to systematic lying he would quickly reach a point during an international crisis when the world would be no more inclined to believe him more than the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s seeming indifference to the truth let alone human rights effectively weakens those dissidents in authoritarian states such as Russia and China who point to the West as a better place to live. In the face of such indifference no one, not even the German chancellor, could do much to stand up for honest politics.
Some Arab audiences, in particular many of those following the US election will have had a familiar feeling and maybe admired the creativity involved. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy or was talk of such a conspiracy a sophisticated liberal conspiracy to bring down the republican candidate? Were the FBI conspiracy accusations a good way of getting back at Trump? The beauty of conspiracy theories is that they are complex and can be made to fit the political or ideological foil of those who believe in them.
In many countries across the world, the media are not free and news is manipulated. The love of conspiracy theories is growing in Europe and America but nowhere are conspiracy theories more beloved than in many parts of the Middle East. Less free news, more manipulation, more lies if that is what America under Trump is in for it will only make dealing with real international crisis that much more difficult. For all the faults of the West and the misrepresentation of the world some of its media indulged in, Europe and America offered and still offer media which could and can be trusted. It is tragic that Trump’s America is reviving the conspiratorial tradition at a time when America should be offering the example of rational thinking and tolerance for free expression. If America under Trump begins to look like the old Middle East and Russia, the risks of a crisis getting out of hand are huge.
This article was previously published in The Arab Weekly.
Francis Ghilès is senior research fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (Cidob). He was the Financial Times’s north Africa correspondent from 1981-95, and now contributes to newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais and La Vanguardia. He is a specialist in emerging energy markets and their relationship to political trends, and has advised western governments and corporations working in north Africa
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