“Stories that should be good, are bad. Stories that should be bad, are horrible,” President Donald Trump complained in December. But that tweet wasn’t just the latest entry in an endless series of gripes about the press—it revealed something essential about this president’s relationship to facts, and the experts who produce them. For Trump, praise is truth, criticism a lie. Reality itself, like everything else in Trump’s world, is negotiable.
Over the past two years, Trump and his enablers have accomplished something even more dangerous than trying to run a government on gut feeling and conspiracy theories. They have, by attacking sources of authoritative knowledge beyond the president himself, inoculated a huge swath of the American public against ever being informed about anything, providing millions of Americans with a resistance to learning that will long outlive his administration.
Presidents going to war with news organizations is not new. (I am old enough to remember I Don’t Believe The New York Times bumper stickers, popular among conservative voters during the Richard Nixon years.) Trumpism itself, with its disdain of the educated and of professionalism, is just another strain of the populism that lies dormant in the bloodstream of every democracy, a disease that strikes at times of injury and stress, as it has in other moments in U.S. history.