Editor’s note: The INDY and other alternative publications have partnered to bring you Democracy in Crisis, a weekly column covering the Trump administration. The author, Baynard Woods, is an editor at large at Baltimore City Paper.
The teams of President Trump’s temporary appointees laying the groundwork for taking over and remaking federal agencies refer to themselves as “beachheads,” a military term for the point of invasion.
Politico reports there were about 520 members of such teams when Trump took office. In any presidential transition, there are tensions between career civil servants and political appointees, but according to experts, this administration’s use of the term may exacerbate those relations. The term was offhandedly used in 2000 by President Bush’s incoming press secretary, Ari Fleischer. It was central to the language of Mitt Romney’s 2012 transition plan, which was provided to the Trump team. But its use here seems systematic, making many within various federal agencies feel like they’re being conquered.
“The language of war being used suggests that cooperation is not the primary philosophy dictating this transition period,” says professor Heath Brown, who studies presidential transitions at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “If the operating philosophy is one of combat rather than cooperation, then we’re in for some trouble with how these agencies are going to function.”
Given the fact that Trump was a reality TV star, it’s not surprising that communications is the main focus of these beachhead teams.
“[Trump’s people] want to control message in a lot of different ways, and for that reason I think they have made that a priority,” Brown says. “The Trump transition team devoted a lot more staff resources to communications than transition teams in the past.”In fact, ten of the twenty-three members of Trump’s senior transition staff have served some communications function, Brown says. And they may well be changing what “communications” meansfrom informing the public, or even spinning the message, to something more like outright propaganda.
Democracy in Crisis uncovered a 1996 Cornell Daily Sun article about then-CNN analyst Kellyanne Conway (née Fitzpatrick) that shows she’s been thinking about media and manipulation for at least twenty years. The story paraphrases Conway speaking about “manipulative media and political jargon.”
“In a generation where television and Internet images ‘bombard our senses,’ it is essential, according to Fitzpatrick, to realize that the soundbytes or visuals prepared by the evening news editors do not represent reality,” the story says.
While this shows that Conway’s obsession with controlling the narrative is not new, it also underlines how she and her boss are pushing the standard spin of nineties-era Washington into the full-blown denial of reality in the age of Trump. During the Trump campaign, Politifact found that only 4 percent of Trump’s claims could be considered entirely truthful. Some, including President Obama, naively thought the power of the presidency would curb Trump’s tendency to lie. But thus far, truths remain merely occasional.
After the inauguration, in the first “unofficial” press conference of the new administration, press secretary Sean Spicer stood in front of reporters and repeatedly lied about things that didn’t matter. Later, in his first “official” press conference, Spicer said, “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.”
Between Spicer’s two statements, Conway baptized Trump-speak with a succinct name: “alternative facts.” A couple of days later, Trump advisor and Lenin wannabe Stephen Bannon called the press the “opposition party” and said the media should “keep its mouth shut.” The attacks on the press, however, are only part of a larger attack on facts themselvesattacks beginning with the communications-obsessed beachheads now inside federal agencies.
Trump ordered the EPA to freeze all of its grants, take down the climate change section of its website (although the administration later backed down), and cease all communications with the press. Then, according to an email obtained by Buzzfeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research division prohibited employees, including scientists, from sharing information with the public. (The USDA later lifted the gag order, saying that it was released “without Departmental direction” and was not sent at the request of the administration.)
But information about climate change is not the only information at riskdata, science, and research are all being suppressed. And Trump’s congressional allies are all too happy to play along. Republican senator Mike Lee of Utah and Arizona congressman Paul Gosar introduced bills last week that say “no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”
This racist bill, which would help maintain the kind of segregation affecting cities all over the country, could still die in committee, but it is of a piece with Trump’s all-out war on facts. Deprived of access to facts, citizens are incapable of making decisions. This is an essential feature of tyranny.
As an air of war prevails in Washington, using the term beachhead may in fact be among the minority of things the Trump team is honest about.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Trump’s War on Facts.”