‘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.
By James Fallows
Feb 21 2017
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.