'What We Are Seeing With Trump Is Fundamentally Different'

Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Julian Zelizer: After President Trump’s rally last weekend there has been a lot of talk about how his predecessors viewed the press. Trump reminded his audience that many others before him have also expressed harsh words for journalists. It seems that Trump is not wrong. From Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to FDR to Barack Obama, it has been conventional for presidents to complain, criticize and even attack the media for the way that they cover politics. Of course, President Nixon and Vice President Agnew were among the toughest critics of a press they believed to be biased, slanted, and just wrong. Ever since FDR’s fireside chats, presidents have also looked for ways to circumvent reporters and speak directly to the people.

This isn’t much of a surprise since the press is supposed to serve a watchdog function. Being a pain to the president is essentially the business.

Yet it seems to me, Mickey, that there are important differences between what we are seeing with Trump compared to what we have seen with other presidents in years gone by. The most relevant distinction is the way that Trump has opened up an all-out assault on the news media as an institution from the very start of his presidency. Rather than complaining about how the press treats him or highlighting particular stories that he disagrees with, Trump literally declared war on the media in the first hours of his campaign and has continued to unleash a relentless assault on what he calls “fake news.” It’s a centerpiece of his first hundred days. He makes no distinctions between different parts of the media, simply blasting the entire institution as illegitimate and irrelevant.

The attacks are troubling given that this is a president who is willing to constantly traffic in falsehood. From the moment of his inauguration, Trump has made statements and claims that are not true. He has insisted that he would have won the popular vote, had it not been for massive voting fraud, and that he won the largest Electoral College victory since Reagan. He has made claims about terrorist attacks that never happened, as have his closest advisers, and offered falsehoods about murder rates, the economy, crowd sizes, and more. Through what Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts,” Trump has been creating his own alternative narrative about world events that actually competes with the fact-based reporting coming from the press. This, too, is a way that he assaults the media, and some of his claims—like voter fraud—have actually gained traction despite the absence of evidence. With a president willing to make such statements in a way that we have not seen before, the standing of the press becomes weaker.

Trump has also gone to war with particular reporters and particular news outlets, like CNN, in a manner that other presidents have avoided. Through his tweets and during his press conferences we have seen him cajole and bully specific reporters, treating them as “enemies of the people.” There were moments during his campaign when reporters were scared for their physical safety. This kind of brutal and explicit intimidation, with the power that comes with the office of the presidency, can have a chilling effect. There were reports that Jared Kushner told Time Warner about his concerns of CNN’s coverage of the White House, as AT&T’s $85.4 billion acquisition of the company still must be approved by the Justice Department and FCC.

The final difference has to do with the nature of the news media in 2017. Technological changes have reduced the number of editorial and production barriers that exist toward the dissemination of information. The internet has allowed for the democratization of news production in way that allow for fabricated information to reach massive audiences, instantly, and in the guise of legitimate information. It is difficult to tell the difference between truth and fiction. While this has always been a problem, never has technology allowed producers of falsehood to disseminate their hoaxes with such ease and rapidity. This combines with a media environment where partisan news organizations have developed massive infrastructures through which to produce biased reporting in polished and sophisticated fashion. With a president who traffics in this kind of information himself, the checks and balances against him have greatly weakened.

So, while it is true that many presidents have had rough words for the journalists who cover them, it seems to me that what we are seeing with Trump is fundamentally different and the threat to delegitimizing this vital institution is greater than ever before. Although Senator McCain’s warning that dictators have this kind of relationship with the press is probably overblown, at this moment, the potential threats are very real with this White House.

Morton Keller: I’m in full agreement with you as to the traditional tension between presidents and the press, and the unique character of the present confrontation. No faux history here!

It is the essence of our politics, and especially Trump’s politics, today, to be outrageous, improvisational, and ever-changing. Partly this is because the news cycle has become so short, and because both the media and the pols are forever on the prowl to get attention. There’s nothing new about this, but Trump’s governing-by-tweeting and his real-estate wheeler-dealer's indifference to reality are new.

But I’m less inclined to conclude that the Republic faces an imminent major threat to its principles and viability. After all, we’re barely a month into the Trump administration, and it is by no means clear that he can rule his party roost the way FDR did in the spring of 1933. The fact of the matter is that our politics now, as during the election, is being buffeted by forces that weren’t widely recognized before (not least by Hillary Clinton and her people).

I think that it is incumbent on us as historians to judge the first hundred days when we have a first hundred days to judge.

I’m not proposing that we should content ourselves with a long-range historians' view of things a la Zhou Enlai’s supposed response when asked what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell.” But it is incumbent on us to point out that Trump’s way of doing things isn’t occurring in a vacuum. There is a steady counter-current in the GOP; to some degree the Democratic opposition has adopted the take-no-prisoners style that now prevails in our politics; and there are at least some indications over the past month that Trump is not oblivious to the party, individual, and institutional constraints that are still very much part of the political scene.

It strikes me that the media are as ill-suited to offer a broader, balanced view of what is happening as they were in their coverage of the election. I think it is incumbent on us as historians to strive mightily to offer a larger perspective as the first 30 becomes the first hundred days.

Zelizer: One of your greatest skills is your ability to come back to long-term continuity and sources of stability within our polity. And you are certainly right. Historians will quickly note that we have survived a brutal Civil War, two world wars, Richard Nixon, and much more—so that there is reason to watch how these events unfold before reaching any dramatic conclusions.

That said, I do think some of the potential threats that exist in the Trump presidency grow out of longer-term developments that have been placing serious strains on our political institutions. From the way in which the rightward shift of the GOP since the 1980s has produced a congressional caucus willing to practice obstruction in more draconian ways to the manner in which new media technology has lowered the editorial and production filters to the dissemination of hoaxes and false claims to international audiences, within the seconds, there are challenges we might face as a nation that did not exist this way before. Trump also becomes president at a moment when the strength of the media was already suffering given the horrendous financial difficulties that have lead many newspapers to close and generated a ratings-oriented approach to the production of news, where click-bait can be more relevant than high-quality journalism.

We also have a president who has surrounded himself with some pretty radical voices, like Stephen Bannon or Tom Price, who have devoted much of their time toward the project of dismantling institutions in aggressive ways. That heightens the potential threat that can exist to the media. Just back from a trip to Rome with my family, I was reminded how the most powerful republic can always fall.

But you are also right, of course, that the institutional and political pushback has been quite strong in the first month or so, and the story of this presidency is just starting to take some form.

Keller: I think that at this point in our exchange, it is best to sum up, see where we are, and then resume our conversation on another topic. (A month from now, the political agenda may be quite different.) As before, I think our differences are a matter of degree (and a lot less than 180 of them). You are more immediately worried about the threat that Trump poses than I am; I am less inclined to typify an administration by what it did (and didn’t do) in its first month—especially one as inexperienced (and in some respects as inept) as this one.

One other point of difference: You incline more than I do to the view that the lion's share of the blame for the current polarization lies with the Republicans, and that has been true since the beginning of the Obama years. I have a more nuanced view. I don't think the Republicans were inclined to be cooperative with the administration. By the same token, I don't see much reason to think that the Obama administration sought GOP cooperation (except on its own terms). I think Nancy Pelosi was every bit the fierce, take-no-prisoners partisan that her Republican counterparts were; I think Harry Reid was in a class by himself in eroding the across-the-aisle traditions of the Senate.

As in the case of the media, what has been happening is the institutional consequence of a slowly building new politics of fierce, unforgiving, ideological confrontation. Here, as elsewhere in life, it takes two to tango.