OPINION4 July 2017

Gossip v Gospel

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Finance Impact Opinion UK

The Donald Trump reality show continues unabated: another day, another Tweet, another executive order. By Lorna Tilbian

Trump speaking audience_crop

The mainstream media and political elite remain stupefied by the pace of developments, but this is what America voted for: someone who means business and gets on with it. Moreover, despite the seeming chaos, the system is demonstrably working, with the judiciary and legislature keeping checks and balances on the executive. The travel ban imposed on seven majority-Muslim countries was overturned by “so-called judge” Bob Ferguson, proving that no man – not even the leader of the free world – is above the law and the constitution.

As Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has said, one must take Trump seriously, but not literally. When it comes to politics, he changes his mind on the turn of a sixpence – think waterboarding, NATO, ‘one China’ policy, the Iran nuclear deal, and the ‘two-state solution’ for the Middle East. But when it comes to economics – cutting taxes, spending on infrastructure or rolling back bank regulation – he seems steadfast, to the delight of Wall Street, where markets are hitting new highs. 

Trump is a businessman: a deal maker, not a politician – and certainly not a diplomat. He talked about ‘draining the swamp’, but instead has filled it with ‘vampire squids’. It’s all about personality, not policies, and being seen to be a winner at all costs.

Which brings us to fake news, or ‘alternative facts’, where what we read is no longer verifiable truth but lies, damn lies, and no statistics. The Pope backed Trump, the FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton for conspiracy to murder, and she was supplying arms to Isis. These were just some of the fictitious stories that gained traction during the 2016 election. A lack of honesty, Macedonians who wanted to make money, Russian agents who wanted to make mischief, and algorithms on social media combined to make the angry and disillusioned vote for Trump. 

This fake news continued after the campaign: the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was exaggerated to distract from the global women’s marches taking place the following day in 180 countries. It was the old PR trick of burying bad news.

Trump has skilfully turned the mainstream media into the official opposition party, distrusted by ordinary citizens for playing partisan politics and now portrayed as the enemy of the people. The media have become the whipping boys of the new administration, exemplifying the breakdown of trust between the elite and the masses. 

Mainstream news outlets failed to understand middle America, and to hold the money men of the East coast – and the unicorn hunters of the West coast – to account for the dashed hopes and lost aspirations of ordinary working folk – people whose standards of living and quality of life have fallen with globalisation and the march of technology. These people have still not recovered from the global financial crisis, despite this being the eighth year of economic expansion in the US. Meanwhile, those regarded as having caused the near-depression are better off, with massive asset inflation a welcome by-product of keeping interest rates too low for too long. So voters are getting perverse pleasure from seeing Trump undermine the press – the voice of the establishment and the elite, who have seemingly betrayed them.

Yet the fourth estate’s role in challenging those in authority and speaking truth to power is vital in a democracy. As President George Bush Jnr said recently: “A free press is critical to democracy… power is addictive… corrosive… and must be kept in check.” But it is interesting to see how timidly US reporters act in presidential press briefings compared to UK journalists. This is in strange contrast to US investors, who are vocal and activist in their behaviour, unlike UK investors, who are often seen as ‘absentee landlords’, working quietly behind the scenes when it comes to keeping boards in check. 

Ironically, banning the ‘crooked media’ – the New York Times, the LA Times, the BBC, The Guardian and the Daily Mail – from White House press conferences, to distract from their investigations into Trump’s alleged links with the Russians and withholding his tax returns, has led to increased circulations, ratings and subscriptions for these outlets.

After years of politicians abrogating their responsibilities, the people voted for someone who would take charge and take on vested interests – not dissimilar to Brexit and the urge for sovereignty.  

Lorna Tilbian is executive plc director and head of media at Numis Securities