We’re well aware, of course, that tinpot authoritarian Donald Trump is allergic to the First Amendment. But he has spent much of the last week stoking his demagoguery.
What set him off (this time) was an incident at CNN, where three reporters said there were possible links between a Russian investment fund and a Trump ally. They got the story wrong. They promptly took responsibility and quit their jobs — holding themselves accountable in ways that this serial-lying White House never would dream of doing.
A normal president, a president of sound mind and democratic mien, would accept the apology and move on. But not Trump. His goal — the goal of every authoritarian the world over — is to sow distrust of everything we see, read and hear (unless it’s vetted by Dear Leader). As the renowned political theorist Hannah Arendt warned in 1974, “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 people you can then do what you please.”
And so, on Tuesday, Trump dispatched his mouthpiece du jour to tar the entire journalistic profession. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (daughter of Mike, the failed right-wing presidential candidate) went to the White House press room and said, “I think it’s the constant barrage of fake news that is directed at this president, probably, that has garnered a lot of his frustration ... I think that we have gone to a place where, if the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America.”
Sanders also touted a new web video — crafted by James O’Keefe, the infamous right-wing fraudster — which shows a CNN producer voicing doubts about Trump-Russia. (This CNN guy does medical news; he’s not involved in the scandal coverage.)
“There’s a video circulating now — whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know — but I would encourage everyone in this room and, frankly, everybody across the country to take a look at it. I think if it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism,” Sanders said.
“Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know” ... There you have it, the Trump mindset.
“I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” Trump tweeted out Thursday morning.
Crazy Mika, Psycho Joe ... They sound like characters from an old Springsteen song. But no, those are middle-school insults sprung from the sick psyche of the purported president of the United States.
Contrast all of the above with these remarks from a real president, interviewed in the Oval Office 55 years ago. When asked about the role of the press, John F. Kennedy said this:
“I think it’s invaluable — even though it may cause you some, uh, it’s never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news. But I would say that it’s an invaluable arm of the presidency — as a check to what’s going on in an administration. Things come to my attention that cause me concern or give me information. So I would think that (Soviet leader) Khrushchev — operating a totalitarian system that has many advantages, like moving in secret and all the rest — is at a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to him daily. Even though we never like it, even though we wish they didn’t write it, even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we couldn’t do the job at all, in a free society, without a very, very active press.”
I’ll just leave it there.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania.