A troubled and unsteady man, Donald Trump is also a habitual liar. What else is new?
But grant him this much: He plays the media and the public like a piano. One of his more virulent and effective lies is that he hates and scorns the news media he watches compulsively for hours a day. Some people actually believe him.
“Fake, fake, disgusting news,” he said at a recent political rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He jabbered on: “Whatever happened to the free press? Whatever happened to honest reporting?” He pointed a tiny finger at the press corps covering the event: “They don’t report it. They only make up stories.”
What might be happening to the free press in the age of Trump is of concern to many more people than our first post-truth president. The question has prompted the Boston Globe to beat the bushes, rallying newspapers across the land to take a coordinated stand in opposition to Trump’s continuing assault on the First Amendment.
Today, August 16, more than 300 papers (at final count) had agreed to rise up as one and publish editorials in protest against Trump’s campaign to denigrate and undermine the fourth estate.
The Lens — which has been called “fake news” by at least one local blowhard, a top school board employee — has never needed an invitation to trash the man who coined the term. We have done so more than once since the TV celebrity and serial bankrupt freakishly became our fake president.
The Globe campaign is worth a try — though it may be just so much preaching to the choir. One measure of its success or failure will be whether overtly pro-Trump outlets — Fox News, the Sinclair chain of TV stations — answer the Globe’s call to arms. It would be an implicit acknowledgment that the president’s diatribes against fact-based reportage could sap public confidence in their news products as well, weakening the bottom line. Not to mention the Constitutional guarantee of free speech.
But here’s a cautionary note:
A coordinated condemnation of Trump by editorial boards nationwide plays nicely into the president’s portrayal of himself as an avatar of truth and freedom battling a vast conspiracy by media operatives who invent reasons to loathe him. (As if invention was required.)
That said, it’s easy to imagine a maneuver by mainstream media that truly would blow Trump’s mind: a group decision by serious news outlets to largely ignore the president’s daily excursions into falsehoods and hate speech, whether on Twitter or from a rostrum. In place of wall-to-wall coverage of every stupidity that passes the presidential lips, what if we focused more intently on the repercussions — some of them dire — of his actual policy decisions?
What if media denied Trump his power to distract us from examining maneuvers that have weakened our international defenses and trade alliances, jeopardized the global fight against climate change and worsened the plight of the working poor who thought the billionaire would be their salvation.
Trump has embraced tax cuts that will make him and his ilk richer while sticking America with another trillion dollars in national debt. Incredibly, he has nodded approvingly at Vladimir Putin’s tyranny and the Russian effort to undermine the U.S. globally and our elections here at home. He has grossly worsened race relations, affirmed his enthusiasm for torture as a spycraft tool, caged infants and toddlers after separating them from their parents. He has cost the nation its grip on global leadership and prestige, and it will be a long time before we get it back — if ever.
Of course media are not going to enter into a conspiracy of silence and begin ignoring Trump’s blather.
For one thing, whatever comes of the Globe’s initiative, the American news industry is not a monolith. Along with their more sober news gathering, outlets compete for every morsel of shock and scandal and always will — at least until Trump, like Turkey’s Erdogan or Russia’s Putin, begins jailing us for disloyalty. (At present he has settled for stripping his critics of security clearances and trying to bully athletes and other public figures into silence.)
The other reason media won’t unite in a refusal to cover his daily distractions is this: Trump is too bizarre, unstable and troubling a presence to be ignored for even a single news cycle. Media attention is the air he breathes. A news blackout might drive him nuts.
Sure, his Twitter account would still function as a safety valve for a troubled narcissist, but without his daily wallow in media attention to even his most idiotic and mean-spirited remarks, the man might begin really wagging the dog, substituting drastic action that can’t be ignored for the jibber-jabber that now distracts us.
That’s the art form a post-truth presidency has perfected — not “the deal” but distraction from it. The tariffs are a drain on the economy that already have cost working America the few bucks families might have gotten from the tax package. And if the tariffs precipitate a financial meltdown, as the more bearish economists are predicting, the price of Trump’s “deals” will be vastly higher.
It puts thinking Americans — not just newspapers — in a terrible bind: how to keep track of Trump’s careless lies and provocations without letting the squid’s ink take our eye off the squid himself.
Still and all, the Globe is right. These are parlous times for free speech. The depth of Trump’s ignorance of what actually makes America great is nowhere more evident than in his effort to undermine the First Amendment.
You don’t like the news? Kill the messenger. It’s an impulse at least as old as tyranny.
Plutarch, the great Roman historian, tells us it was Tigranes, king of Armenia, who ordered the beheading of the messenger who brought him news that Lucullus, the rampaging consolidator of the Roman Empire’s eastern flank, was advancing. Thereafter, as Plutarch wrote, “no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”
Trump craves flattery, but as tyrants go, much as he admires them, he’s kind of bush league. He lacks the vision, the sense of purpose and the follow-through to make good on the careless eruptions of lying and hate-rhetoric that motivated a minority of Americans to vote him into office.
For all the noise on the campaign trail, and even with Republican control of Congress and the White House, The Wall has not been built. Obamacare has yet to be completely gutted.
We can be less grateful that North Korea continues to maintain and enhance a nuclear arsenal even after Trump played kissy-kissy with Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June. We can be just as sorry that Russia is undeterred in its efforts to sap American and European democracy and the NATO alliance, a campaign in which it has made Putin’s most adoring (or fearful) fan its tool.
Even Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein remain in office as Trump impotently reviles them. The Swamp is undrained; indeed you need to go back to Warren Harding and the Teapot Dome era to find an administration dripping with more slime.
The Lucullus on Trump’s horizon is, of course, Robert Mueller, the special counsel. The widening probe has already laid bare the outlines of an administration more corrupt, more given to self-dealing, than even its worst detractors predicted.
And if the cuddling with Russian oligarchs is not finally revealed to be treasonous as well, it will be only because Trump’s romance with Putin was queered by the ineptitude of Trump’s son, his son-in-law and the many other men and women who have traded their integrity for the cheap thrill that evidently comes with a White House pass.
You can pretty much measure Trump’s growing panic by the intensity of his rage against media reporting on the tightening noose Mueller has slipped around his neck.
After spluttering aloud about “fake, fake disgusting news,” Trump continued the Wilkes-Barre diatribe on Twitter: “The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE,” he raved. “I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!”
Trump’s “great service” is, of course, only to himself. However incoherent his messaging — indeed, precisely because Trump is comfortable with incoherence — he has seen advantage in shrouding his administration in the cloud cover of falsehood and the disdain for science that are its most astonishing and distinctive hallmarks. No lie, however outrageous, can’t be walked back the following day as Trump moves on to yet another lie. Astonishingly, the public has become inured to the mockery the president makes of our credulousness.
From Trump’s lips we have learned that Obama was a Kenyan-born Moslem, that an imaginary horde of illegal immigrants cost him the three-million-vote majority that Hillary Clinton attracted in 2016, that Mexican immigrants are a bunch of rapists and thieves, that neo-Nazis may be very fine people and that prominent black Americans are dumb. We have been encouraged to believe that Putin is right (also, gosh, a really great man!) and that America’s national security establishment is wrong in declaring, without a lingering doubt, that the Russian dictator and his agents maneuvered urgently and skillfully to install Trump in the White House.
Orwell knew decades before Trump gave it a shot that if you can shake the public’s confidence in common sense — what it sees with its own eyes — a demagogue’s paeans to race and class hatred begin to sound like a national anthem.
Trump’s effort to replace fact-based reportage with his own ranting and bigotry may have succeeded even better than his simultaneous campaign to shake America’s faith in the judiciary. If so, he has relegated a generation of Americans to intellectual dump picking and the embrace of arrant lies and lunatic conspiracy theories available on the internet’s outer fringes.
The Globe’s campaign may backfire. Or it may be a case of too little too late. One thing you can bet on is that many papers joining in the editorial protest will be citing Thomas Jefferson, the president who engineered the Louisiana Purchase:
Forced to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson wrote to a friend.
Trump would meet Jefferson at least half way. Like many right-wingers he professes to hate government, however much he enjoys the trappings of power, the parades, the pomp, the free rides to his clubs in Palm Beach and New Jersey and, yes, the ceaseless press attention.
But even with “Fox and Friends” and Sean Hannity to stroke his ego, Trump would never want to see media replace the government he has disgraced. The good papers have already written the first rough draft of a history in which Trump — whether re-elected in 2020 or run out of office ahead of schedule — will be seen as an astonishing anomaly, a president who systematically betrayed the nation and the very most basic constitutional principles he swore to defend.
That much has already been established. Now begins the very difficult process of trying to make America great again.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.