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The Hondurans are Coming! Trump Stirs the Pot of Hysteria, the Media Happily Spoons It Out

It's crucial to understand that Trump could not drum up this latest round of panic on his own. 

The caravan of thousands of Central Americans advance walking after the federal police opened the road to Tapanatepec on October 27, 2018 in Tapanatepec, Mexico. The caravan of the Central Americans plans to eventually reach the United States.

The caravan of thousands of Central Americans advance walking after the federal police opened the road to Tapanatepec on October 27, 2018 in Tapanatepec, Mexico. The caravan of the Central Americans plans to eventually reach the United States. (Photo by Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images)

The Hondurans are coming! And Salvadorans! And Guatemalans! And ISIS!

Caravan on the march! "Onslaught"! "Mobs"! "Crisis on our border"! Californians "rioting" to "get out of sanctuary cities"! Throughout recent days, the Fantasist-in-Chief pounds away at his panic-inducing bombast, offering one after another overheated impersonation of Paul Revere, as if present-day Redcoats were financed by George Soros and commanded by the demonic trio of Geronimo, Santa Anna and Genghis Khan.

Trump has been stirring — stirring the pots of venom — so fearsomely that he not only rouses his crowds, he commandeers TV news. He not only compels his faithful, he compels the cameras. Where he points, they look, and look, until they find something more garish to look at.

In effect, TV puts Trump in charge of the news. The story of thousands of desperate refugees is real, the coverage necessary, but TV news inflames the images, inflates the fight and presses panic buttons. 

The uproar over illegal aliens has now again reached critical mass and detonated into a veritable turn-out-the-vote campaign for Republicans. Once more the Propagandist-in-Chief has converted the broadcast spectrum into a spectacular sequence for reality TV, ready-made for fraudulent videos to pump up the fright.

If the man knows anything, he knows how to manufacture a "National Emergy," as he called it in a Monday tweet, offering unintended hilarity to the steaming brew of toxic indignation he'd been stirring for days.

The New York Times reports that White House chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen began briefing Trump on the "caravan" the week before last.

Recall that Trump had had a bad week, trapped in an embarrassing (to say the least) embrace of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was plausibly suspected of orchestrating the torture and murder of a prominent America-based opponent inside his Istanbul consulate.

Trump, unencumbered by fact, is a specialist in look-over-there diversions. Fulminations against invaders from south of the border would refocus attention from America's nasty ally to the right wing's usual suspects.

And so Trump took his show on the road, casting aspersions like poison pearls before enemies-of-the-American-people swine. Alarm! Terror! Panic! "Some bad people started that caravan," he said on Saturday. "More importantly, or maybe almost as importantly, you have some very, very bad people in the caravan…tough criminal elements."

By Monday he had upped his ante, tweeting not only "National Emergy!" but "Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in," as usual citing no evidence. (There is none.)

At a rally in Houston, he cast blame on his enemies: "The Democrats…have launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country. The crisis on our border right now as we speak is the sole result of Democrat laws and activist, Democrat judges." Thus reads the playbook of all actual or wannabe authoritarians.

If one were looking for blameworthy elements, one might point out that decades of U.S.-supported dictatorship in Central America and misguided drug war have made life hellish there, contributing to both economic breakdown and gang formation. The New York Times has mentioned drought conditions in Honduras as one cause of the recent efflux — drought, exacerbated by global warming, is also forcing farmers to try taking refuge in Europe — but such observations, complicating the Venezuela scenario, will not make headlines or "BREAKING NEWS."

On Tuesday, Trump backed off about "unknown Middle Easterners": "There's no proof of anything, but they could very well be." To demonstrate that he bears no region any ill will, he declared that the Border Patrol has "intercepted wonderful people from the Middle East, and they've intercepted bad ones."

Claiming that "I have very good information" (twice for good measure) and offering none, he insinuated that Democrats "maybe…made a bad mistake" by backing the caravan. Trump's "they could very well be" is one of his routine and deceitful ways of planting a meme in his segment of the national mind — a meme that warps and inflames national consciousness even when he issues his late and perfunctory modifications.

At the same White House event on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence was deputized to join in: "It's inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent in a crowd of more than 7,000 people advancing toward our border." Inconceivable?

Speaking alongside Trump in the Oval Office, Pence said "there are statistics on this," but as the Washington Post discovered, there are no such statistics. Pence added that "the president of Honduras told him that the caravan was organized by leftist groups and financed in part by Venezuela."

These people, he said, aim "to challenge our sovereignty, to challenge our borders." The authoritarian playback is always obsessed, whether sincerely or cynically, with the impurities that threaten to contaminate our great purity and pure greatness — even, in the classic formulation from Stanley Kubrick's great Cold War comedy "Dr. Strangelove," "our precious bodily fluids."

Wielding an ever-lengthening chain of ungrounded aspersions, authoritarian leaders aim to drive serious thought into a corner, where it can be sequestered as a devil's brew devised by "enemies of the people" preying upon the unwary.

This is a time-tested method: to dispense so many falsehoods, tinctured by occasional sweeteners of half-truth, that the impression sticks. Even denials reinforce the hunch that there must be a fire inside the smoke. The atmosphere is poisoned. Truth is reduced to a partisan claim, "political," therefore discountable.

But it's crucial to understand that Trump could not drum up this latest round of panic on his own. This October surprise is not only Trump's doing, it is the doing of the collaborators who relay and amplify his uproars.

He makes news, but not unaided. As we repeatedly saw during the 2016 campaign, whenever he presses buttons, the news-deciders jump. (Even the expectation that Trump would speak at a rally at times qualified as "breaking news" on CNN, complete with camera shots of the empty stage.)

Trump rallies not only his faithful but the opinion-makers, especially those who produce news with pictures. Whatever they might privately think of him, he sets their agendas. He is, in effect, their Producer-in-Chief. Absent Trump's uproar, the TV outlets would not have choked their channels with a surfeit of "breaking news" reports about the "caravan" of Central Americans intending to make their way to the U.S. border.

Thus, for example, on Tuesday Fox News had reporter Griff Jenkins at the Rio Grande in McAllen, Tex., whispering as he crouched in the bushes in wait as families — who had nothing to do with the "mile-long" caravan more than a thousand miles away — tried to cross the border.

As several adults and a child in a boat headed for the Texas shore, Jenkins popped up, shouting, "Excuse me, sir, were you trying to cross into America illegally?" No answer was heard. The group headed back to the Mexican shore. Fox News's chyron read: "GRIFF FOILS ILLEGALS' ATTEMPT TO CROSS BORDER."

"We busted one of those smuggling operations," Jenkins boasted.

Later, Jenkins questioned these migrants, asking one woman in the group if she was attempting to knowingly cross illegally. The woman answered that she was fleeing Honduras because "you cannot get work there because the criminals will always get the money."

The chyron: "ILLEGAL ADMITS TO KNOWINGLY BREAKING THE LAW."

Fox News' account was, no surprise, straight-out propaganda masquerading as journalism. But Fox was not the only network sounding alarm. Thus did CNN warn on Wednesday that "another migrant caravan bound for the U.S.-Mexico border is forming in Central America," adding that "federal officials in the United States are keeping their eyes on it."

This is the language normally used for tropical storms — monstrous and mysterious disruptions to an otherwise placid America primed for greatness.

Trump's look-over-there diversionary maneuvers are so well known that, backstage, reporters refer to his distractions as "shiny objects." Reporters know well that this is what they are.

By taking them at face value, they turn themselves into (in the late Jack Newfield's memorable phrase) "stenographers with amnesia." It would seem the minimal requirement of journalistic integrity to point out that falsehoods are false. Journalists are not obliged to write fashion reviews of the emperor's new outfit, or to shine up his shiny objects.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of sixteen books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.

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