‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’

Trump’s attacks on the free press don’t just threaten the media—they undermine the public’s capacity to think, act, and defend democracy.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Are Donald Trump’s latest attacks on the press really that bad? Are they that out-of-the-ordinary, given the famous record of complaints nearly all his predecessors have lodged? (Even George Washington had a hostile-press problem.)

Are the bellows of protest from reporters, editors, and others of my press colleagues justified? Or just another sign that the press is nearly as thin-skinned as Trump himself, along with being even less popular?

I could prolong the buildup, but here is the case I’m going to make:  Yes, they’re that bad, and worse.

I think Trump’s first month in office, capped by his “enemy of the people” announcement about the press, has been even more ominous and destructive than the Trump of the campaign trail would have prepared us for, which is of course saying something. And his “lying media” campaign matters not only in itself, which it does, but also because it is part of what is effectively an assault by Trump on the fundamentals of democratic governance.

I don’t know whether on Trump’s own part this campaign is consciously thought-through and strategic: The evidence suggests that he is a man of instinct and impulse rather than patient multi-move deliberation. The evidence about formal and informal members of his constellation, from official advisor Steve Bannon to unofficial ally and model Vladimir Putin, suggests a far more purposeful approach. But whatever its origin, Trump’s record in office is emerging as something different from any previous president’s.

Everyone who has sat in the Oval Office has complained about the way various checks on his power—by the judiciary, the press, stated rules and unstated norms, the opposition party, and alliances and diplomatic obligations—interfere with his ambitions. Trump’s views amount to a rejection of the very existence of those checks. Even in their bitterest tirades against a hostile press (LBJ, Nixon, Clinton, many others), an intransigent court (FDR), a “do-nothing Congress” (Truman, Obama), or feckless allies (take your pick), previous presidents have shown some inner sign that they recognize the legitimacy of a checks-and-balance system, or at least the need to pay it lip service. The standard presidential complaint boils down to: “Sure, we need a free press. I just want it to be ‘fairer’ to me.”

But what Trump has said about the press and all other institutional buffers on his power reflects a simpler calculus, not institutional but tribal. These other centers of power are either for him, or they are against him. If they are for him, they are good—from foreign leaders who congratulate him or call him “brilliant,” to polls that show results to his liking, to “very honorable” news shows like Fox and Friends. Or they are against him, and if the latter they are “so-called,” “phony,” “failing,” “cheating,” “crooked,” or otherwise to be discredited.

Donald Trump accepts the existence of the formal and informal institutional structure that constitutes American democracy only as long as that suits his purposes, and disdains or directly attacks it when it gets in his way. The consistency and extent of this approach have no U.S. precedent that I’m aware of. During the Republican convention in Cleveland last summer, I was in the hall when Trump delivered the most chilling line of his acceptance speech: “I alone can fix it.” Americans have had and supported strong presidents before. This is the closest we have come to a caudillo.


On the specific problems with Trump’s attack on the press, such a rich literature has arisen so quickly that it makes most sense just to list some of the highlights. They include: Jonathan Karl of ABC, “The Free Press is a Big Part of What Makes America Great”; Chris Wallace of Fox, “Trump Has Crossed a Line”; Brian Stelter of CNN on the need for “media literacy”; David Remnick of The New Yorker, on “Donald Trump and the Enemies of the American People”; Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast, on the aptness of the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People; Joel Simon of CJR on Trump’s strategic similarities to Hugo Chavez; Allison Hantschel of First Draft, on “Enemies and their people”; Jay Rosen of PressThink on “Steve Bannon’s Styrofoam Balls”; Emily Esfahani Smith of New York magazine, on the increasingly tribal dimensions of “fact”; Emily Dreyfuss of Wired on the modern nature of the lie; Jon Finer in The Atlantic on why this is a dangerous time for the press and the presidency; and, for good measure, Anthony Lewis’s 2006 review in the NYRB of a biography of Joe McCarthy. Please read all of them and the many others they link to.

Probably the most sustained of these arguments is that of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writer Bret Stephens, last week in his Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA (as reprinted full-length in Time). He develops at length, and very well, the point I am suggesting  here. It’s fair to disclose that in the pre-Trump era I disagreed with Stephens’s views pretty much across the board on international and domestic policy. He was for the Iraq war and against the Iran nuclear deal; my views were the reverse. Similar, and on the same issues, I took a different view of the pre-Trump world from the Washington Post’s editorial writer Jennifer Rubin. I assume I’ll disagree with Stephens and Rubin again whenever Trump has gone. But in the year and a half since Trump appeared on the horizon, these two have distinguished themselves in standing up for conservative principles, and the underpinnings of small-l liberal democracy, rather than partisan accommodationism. People looking back on this era will contrast them and their clarity with the party leaders who have been so busily averting their eyes.

Back to Stephens’s address. He starts by contrasting Trump’s media complaints with those of other politicians (emphasis added):

But the question of what Mr. Trump might yet do by political methods against the media matters a great deal less than what he is attempting to do by ideological and philosophical methods.

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes—Breitbart News and the rest…

His objection to, say, The New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt—so long as it’s on his side.

And then Stephens extends the argument to one of the traits that most strikingly distinguishes Trump from most other politicians: that he does not care if he is shown to be telling obvious, easily disprovable lies. The inner power of the norm against lying is such that even people later renowned for high-stakes falsehoods—Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mark Sanford—tried to avoid telling lies until it was “useful” or “necessary,” and betrayed their discomfort when they were caught. As I argued just after the election, the unsettling novelty of Trump is that he tells lies when they’re not useful, he tells lies when he knows they can be disproven, he lies and shows less remorse than a lizard when the lie is exposed.

Stephens describes a recent exchange Trump had with Bill O’Reilly, in which O’Reilly asked him about his unconnected-to-reality claims that there had been millions of illegal votes. From Stephens’s speech:

The president replies [to O’Reilly’s challenge]: “Many people have come out and said I’m right.”…

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant—if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

He isn’t telling O’Reilly that he’s got his facts wrong. He’s saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them—or, in his case, both….

If I had to sum it up [this view] in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.


Why does this matter? Because the entirety of the liberal-governing experiment of the past four centuries involves checks on what you can get away with. Doing what you can get away with is the governing ethic of the tribe, of the feudal lord, of today’s autocrats. It’s the ethic of Tony Soprano—although a difference between him and Donald Trump is that Tony showed more awareness of codes he was supposed to observe, and more inner conflict when he did not observe them.

The work of the people who created the American presidency and its surrounding institutions, who moved us from the world of the tribe and the fief to that of the republic, is that the system required checks and limits to survive. I will bet all the money I have that Donald Trump is not familiar with James Madison’s Federalist Paper #51 or its famous “if men were angels” argument. But of course the challenge Madison set out in 1788 is the one that confronts the republic all these long years later:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions

The first 44 occupants of the White House have chafed against some implications of that passage, and against the often-frustrating checks-and-balances structure that arose from it: “auxiliary precautions,” “control itself,” and so on. But they have recognized the legitimacy and necessity of this complex work of governing. Most have tried to maximize their power, while arguing that they are still working squarely and respectfully within established and necessary bounds.

Those bounds are what the 45th incumbent is probably unaware of, and certainly now disregards. Of the institutions that might check him:

  • The most basic is elections, but Trump famously said during the campaign that he would “accept” the results—“if I win.” Since then he has of course repeated his false claim that his popular vote loss was rigged by illegal voting, and that his electoral-college win was very large rather than historically small. Imagine Trump on the losing side of a Bush v. Gore-style decision, or even in Hillary Clinton’s position now, as the clear winner of the popular vote but the loser of the office.
  • When the judiciary has ruled against him, he has immediately blasted its “so-called” and “biased” judges, following of course his attacks on the “Mexican” judge who was hearing a fraud case against him during the campaign.
  • Norms of transparency, notably the post-Nixon assumption that all nominees would disclose their tax information, he has simply ignored.
  • The more basic norm that a citizen will pay taxes, or “serve” in some other way, he has taken pride in avoiding.
  • Outright laws and rules to similar effect, from the famous “anti-emoluments” clause to the outright prohibition on the Old Post Office building, site of the Trump Hotel, being leased to an elected official, he has also just ignored.
  • Because he believed some members of the nation’s intelligence agencies were suspicious of his Russian ties, he disparaged them and their work.
  • And then we have the press. At that hoary institution known as the White House Correspondents Association dinner, ritual demands that a president spend the first two-thirds of his speech cracking jokes and being “wry” about his run-ins with the press. But the iron expectation is that after that set-up the president pauses, dons a sincere look, and says “But seriously now..” Then he goes on about the public’s reliance on an active, unafraid press as a crucial tool for accountability and honesty. It is hard to imagine Donald Trump giving the first part of that speech, and impossible to imagine the second.

Twenty years ago, in what now seems an Edenic time, I wrote a book called Breaking the News. The Atlantic ran a cover-story excerpt called “Why Americans Hate the Media.” The book’s main argument was that when reporters presented an overly conflict-centered, tactics-minded, “horse race”-dominant picture of public life, they hurt the news business, and they hurt the function of democracy as well. If the press served up public life as just another version of reality TV, but with less-interestingly scripted plot lines and less-sexy-looking participants, then the public would naturally turn away from this less enticing entertainment and go for the real thing. Back then, it was quaintly possible to think of “news” and “entertainment” as separable realms.

We’re now a million miles down the news-as-entertainment road. Instinctively by Trump, perhaps strategically by Bannon and others, the Trump moment has promoted the idea that there are no facts, no reality, no authorities, no actual truth. There’s only us and them. Donald Trump's caudillo skill as a performer is being the “I” who can be the voice of the “us.” He’s simply better at that than the other side is. I expect if any reporters with experience in 1930s Italy were still around, they’d be writing about parallels with Il Duce. It is no coincidence that reporters who have dealt with state-news systems in autocratic Russia (like David Remnick or Masha Gessen) or China (where I have lived) are more much concerned by Trump than amused.

I won’t draw the comparison to reporters who were in Germany in the 1930s; that is heavy-handed, and a stretch. But I’ll close with part of an interview with Hannah Arendt, who was one of the great interpreters of that era. This is from an interview published in 1978 in the New York Review of Books, freshly relevant now:

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows.

And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.