Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump attacked the media in personal, vicious terms. He threatened to “open up” libel laws. From time to time, he chose to ban one or another outlet from the press gaggle because he objected to its reporting. Trump used the press as a foil to rally his media-hating base, we thought. Now there seems to be something more ominous going on.
Press secretary Sean Spicer lashed out at the press last Saturday, falsely insisting that the media was deceiving the public and not reporting that President Trump’s inaugural crowd was the biggest ever. (It wasn’t.) White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, which specializes in pro-Trump propaganda, on Wednesday made clear what he thinks of an independent, free press. “The media here is the opposition party,” he told the New York Times. “They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” For good measure he added that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
On the morning after Donald Trump’s inauguration, acting National Park Service director Michael T. Reynolds received an extraordinary summons: The new president wanted to talk to him.
In a Saturday phone call, Trump personally ordered Reynolds to produce additional photographs of the previous day’s crowds on the National Mall, according to three individuals who have knowledge of the conversation. The president believed that they might prove that the media had lied in reporting that attendance had been no better than average.
This perfectly encapsulates Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies, his insistence on his delusional version of events being the sole source of information. In fact, his pronouncements throughout the first week in office were chock full of lies on everything from the size of his crowds to the crime trend in Philadelphia to the reception he got at CIA headquarters. Trump lives up to his billing as a world-class narcissist, one who will bend and contort reality to feed his ego and who expects the media to act like Fox Non-News hosts such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, obedient carriers of his falsehoods. He is wounded that the media is so “negative,” while insisting too that the media does not matter.
Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin correctly pointed out in an interview with Jake Tapper that this is what leaders with “authoritarian tendencies do” — they bully and discredit any competing source of public information. He later told me, “Anyone who would order the press to keep its mouth shut is someone who has a dubious commitment, at best, to democracy and to elected officials’ accountability to the American people.”
Whether on the right or left, defenders of the First Amendment have become alarmed by Trump’s war on the press. Faiz Shakir, ACLU national political director, said to me, “Steve Bannon should tread carefully. As someone duty-bound to uphold the Constitution, Bannon is showing great disrespect to the First Amendment’s freedom of the press protection.” Shakir added, “If Bannon and the Trump administration start enforcing ways to keep the press’s ‘mouth shut,’ they will find themselves in court very soon.”
What we now see is the product of Trump’s obsession with adulation and his team’s determination to obliterate any bearers of objective truth. Part of the responsibility also rests with so-called respectable conservatives who complained for years, with justification, about liberal bias in the media — and then set out to create something far worse. They have cocooned themselves in a bubble of dishonesty and resentment, a closed media destructive of American democratic norms. In obvious ways (watch “Fox & Friends” peddle Trump’s narrative morning after morning) and less obvious ways (laundering false data from anti-immigrant groups to support immigration exclusionism), the right has become an echo chamber in which blatant untruths are repeated until no one dares question them.
It has decided that to be conservative means to be blind to scientific consensus on climate change; hence everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Trump (a “Chinese hoax”) to the Trump Environmental Protection Agency becomes purveyors of misinformation, half-truths and out-and-out lies. To be one of them requires one to believe all sorts of things that aren’t true (e.g. illegal immigration from Mexico is higher than ever, CIA employees gave Trump a standing ovation).
As one commentator put it, “One of the defining tactics of his campaign was disinformation, coupled with accusations of the same against the media. That hasn’t changed now that Trump is president. … The president will wage a rhetorical war against the media, with the intent of delegitimizing one of the few institutions that can hold him accountable, and he will wage it with his most effective weapon: Lies, damned lies, and false statistics.”
Republicans have a special obligation not only to dispute his falsehoods, but also to call him out for attempting to snow the American people. They cannot be handmaidens to Trump’s assault on the truth. And if they think that staying mute when Trump tramples over democratic norms will buy them breathing space, they should think again. Trump’s lies will be wielded against them just as surely as they are now deployed against Democrats. Republicans will want a fair and independent press to get their message out and to debunk Trump’s attacks against them. Their relative silence betrays a fundamental lack of courage and disregard for core democratic principles. Unless they stand up to Trump and for objective truth, voters in 2018 may want to take away their majorities in the House and Senate.