There is a reason sales of 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopia about a future totalitarian dictatorship in England, have risen by 10,000 percent since Donald Trump took office in January. It is because Americans are beginning to understand that President Trump disdains the constitutional limitations on his presidential authority, and wants to be not so much president as authoritarian dictator. By reading 1984 many Americans seek to understand just how bad it could get if Trump continues to undermine American institutions that were designed to prevent any branch of government, or any president, from exercising absolute authority. It is instructive that 1984‘s protagonist was tasked with editing newspaper articles and other media so that the past always perfectly aligned with today’s position of the dictatorial Party. The truth became whatever Big Brother said it was.
Let’s hope Trump doesn’t become Big Brother.
Nowhere is it more apparent that Trump rejects the boundaries of his power than in his free-wheeling and fraudulent attacks on the American press. Blue Southerner believes the mainstream press, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN, did an abysmal job covering the general election campaign, inexplicably spending hours of airtime and thousands of words on the non-issue of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Their failures were matters of focus and emphasis, though, not of false reporting.
None of these outlets reported as facts things that were demonstrably untrue about Clinton; where the media screwed the pooch was in creating a false equivalency between Clinton’s lapses of judgment about email security and Trump’s outrageous statements about women, African-Americans, and Muslims, and his obvious personal flaws that make him unfit to be president.
Since Inauguration Day the press has done a much better job, finally focusing on Trump’s conflicts of interest, his seemingly traitorous ties to Russia, and his administration’s governmental ineptness. Trump has made his unhappiness with the stories published by the mainstream press clear in his daily statements and tweets, most of which call the critical stories about his administration “fake news.”
After a disastrous first four weeks in office, featuring a labor secretary nominee withdrawing in the face of GOP opposition, an incompetent executive order banning Muslims from entering the country being quickly struck down by the federal courts, and the firing of a national security advisor, Trump on Thursday held a press conference that can only be described as deranged. Called for the nominal purpose of announcing his new pick for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, Trump spent 75 minutes ranting about the press’s critical coverage of his flailing administration, lying about many things, including the alleged “mess” he inherited from Barack Obama (God we miss him), and asserting that all of the stories about his administration’s communications with Russia intelligence are “fake news.”
“I’m here today to update the American people on the incredible progress that has been made in the last four weeks since my inauguration,” Trump said, after quickly announcing his new pick for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta.
“We have made incredible progress. I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done,” Trump said.
And saying he resented picking up newspapers and turning on the television to hear reports that his White House was in chaos, Trump said, “This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
Trump’s appearance betrayed apparent deep frustration not just with the media coverage of his White House and a desire to talk directly to the American people but also possibly dismay with aides charged with defending him.
“I don’t mind a bad story if it’s true,” Trump said, but complained much of what was reported about his administration was unfair.
The President lashed out, for instance, at coverage of his temporary travel ban on nationals of seven mostly Muslim nations that caused a weekend of chaos at the nation’s airports before being suspended by a federal court.
“We had a very smooth roll out of the travel ban. But we had a bad court,” Trump said. “We had a bad decision, that is the only thing that is wrong with the travel ban.”
It was a performance that veered from anger to self-pity to the patented Trump smug self-congratulation. A GOP senator texted a reporter that Trump’s unhinged ravings belonged on a therapist’s couch rather than a presidential presser:
“I got a text from a Republican senator who said in this text, ‘He should do this with a therapist, not on live television,'” CNN’s John King reported, noting that he also received texts from Democrats.
Trump’s response to the stories about his administration’s contacts with Russian intelligence officers was pure Orwellian doublethink. On the one hand, he said that the officials who anonymously leaked information to the press were engaged in criminal acts because the information was classified (and thus true). On the other hand, Trump said that the stories based on the true leaks of classified information were “fake news,” a phrase Trump repeats like a mantra.
Mr. President, believing something is simultaneously true and false is called cognitive dissonance. Look it up.
Apparently Trump’s lunatic performance at Thursday’s presser didn’t get the anti-press venom out of his system, so Friday he sent the following jaw-dropping tweet:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
The press is the enemy of the strangely capitalized American People. Woo boy. Words fail us, so we will let the “failing” New York Times take over:
The president has referred to the media as the “opposition party” to his administration, and he has blamed news organizations for stymieing his agenda. But the language that Mr. Trump deployed on Friday is more typically used by leaders to refer to hostile foreign governments or subversive organizations. It also echoed the language of autocrats who seek to minimize dissent.
“Oh boy,” Carl Bernstein, the journalist who helped to uncover the Watergate scandal, said on Friday, after a reporter read him Mr. Trump’s tweet.
“Donald Trump is demonstrating an authoritarian attitude and inclination that shows no understanding of the role of the free press,” he added.
Historians pointed out similarities between Mr. Trump and Richard M. Nixon, who in 1972 told his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, “The press is the enemy.”
Mr. Bernstein said the president’s language “may be more insidious and dangerous than Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press.”
“But there is a similarity in trying to divide the country, and make the conduct of the press the issue, instead of the conduct of the president,” he said.
Mr. Trump and his top advisers strongly believe that an elitist news media lost its credibility by failing to anticipate his political rise.
Still, the notion of the news media as an enemy of the public — especially when voiced by a sitting president — went a step beyond Mr. Trump’s usual rhetorical turns.
The Times‘s Frank Bruni wrote yesterday about how Trump’s outrages, in their frequency and endless variety, have created a numbing effect on the public psyche. With so many outrages coming so close on the heels of each other it is hard to focus on any one outrage.
Trump’s naming the press itself as our enemy should pierce through the numbness and shock this nation out of its slide into authoritarianism. Our colleague Jay George wrote earlier this month about the parallels between the Trump regime and Nazi Germany. The first two things Hitler and his cronies did after coming to power was to ban demonstrations and take control of the press.
Pay attention, people. Trump is a danger to democracy. Don’t doubt it for a second, or pretty soon Big Brother will be watching you.