Donald Trump went to war when the U.S. Intelligence Community unanimously concluded that Russian criminals had interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
Not with the Russian criminals.
With the press and the Intelligence Community. And truth itself.
Russia’s interference with the election has haunted Trump since the day he took office. Russiagate goes to the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, and he can’t abide the thought that his election was tainted by a crooked boost from Russia.
But it’s not just about how he gained the presidency. It’s also about his ability to hold onto it. If it is proven that Trump or his associates conspired with the Russians to swing the election his way, which looks more likely by the day, Russiagate presents a serious threat to cripple, or even terminate his presidency.
Trump has responded to this threat the way he always does.
Never play defense. Always play offense. Always attack.
It starts with just plain lying. Nothing he says can be taken at face value. Most of what he has said and tweeted during his presidency falls somewhere in the range between wildly exaggerated and patently false. No subject, be it the size of a crowd, his electoral margin, voter fraud, or how he ranks against other presidents in terms of bills signed, is too trivial for Trump to lie about.
But this is about far more than just telling lies. After all, everyone lies, although mercifully few of us lie as casually or as consistently as Trump. The New York Times has already done the job of cataloging Trump’s lie-a-day for us. And nobody but his most devoted followers believes him anyway.
More important than the lies, and far more damaging to our democracy, is Trump’s persistent campaign to discredit and destroy the credibility of every person and institution that has the legal, political or moral authority to hold him accountable.
Target number one is the free press. The vitality, independence and freedom of America’s press has long been the envy of the world. Cajoling authoritarian regimes to allow more open public expression has been a staple of American foreign policy for decades. America’s moral authority, at least what’s left of it, derives in large part from its free press.
So, while you might expect a dictator hostile to the United States to denigrate the American free press, you certainly wouldn’t expect to see an American president do it.
Except Donald Trump.
Trump’s campaign against the American press is doing our enemies’ work for them. It has resonated with authoritarian leaders across the globe, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Poland’s autocratic President Andrzej Duda. World leaders who restrict, imprison and even murder journalists are lining up to congratulate Trump for his treatment of the press. He sounds just like them.
The assault on the press is intended to destroy the credibility of the primary source of information for the American public, the legitimate news organizations that operate under strict journalistic standards, publishing only carefully sourced and edited stories. Yes, sometimes they make mistakes. But major mistakes are rare, and are promptly disclosed and corrected. Yes, there is sometimes bias in the mainstream press, as there is in virtually every human endeavor, but that bias generally manifests itself in commentary and journalistic choices about what news to cover, not in factually inaccurate reporting.
Trump’s nuclear weapon in his attack on the press is the “fake news” moniker. He uses it daily to brainwash his supporters into disbelieving everything they hear from the so-called mainstream media. If the President of the United States says it loud enough and often enough, a lot of people are going to believe it.
The term “fake news” has been around for a long time, mostly as a reference to deliberately fabricated misinformation and hoaxes.
During the 2016 presidential election, fake news entered a new heyday when Trump and his campaign associates began peddling wildly false stories that they picked up from dark websites whose only mission is to do harm and create chaos. Many of the malicious stories peddled by Trump were manufactured by a handful of organized fake news operations that employed teenagers to produce and distribute made-up “news.”
When the press began to call out Trump for re-publishing these phony, manufactured stories through his Twitter account, they called it by its true name, “fake news.”
Trump made no attempt to defend the truth of the misinformation he was spreading. Instead, he set out to neutralize the press reports about his use of “fake news” by appropriating the term for himself, and changing its meaning.
Trump began using the words “fake news” to describe every story that was critical of him. He obliterated the line between stories that weren’t true, and stories that he just didn’t like. There were few that weren’t true, and many that he didn’t like, but Trump branded all of it as “fake news.” Soon it wasn’t just unfavorable stories that were branded as fake news, but entire news outlets. And then the entire “mainstream” press.
The unfortunate result of Trump’s “fake news” campaign has been to rob the term of its true meaning. It is now used frequently by Trump, but rarely about him. He has taken ownership of the phrase and so thoroughly sullied it that others are reluctant, even embarrassed to use it.
Although the press has been the primary target in Trump’s war on truth, it is not the only one. Other targets include the U.S. Intelligence Community, the judiciary, the the independent scorekeepers in Congress, and the pollsters who keep a finger on the pulse of American thought.
To what end has Trump wreaked all this havoc?
While there’s good reason to doubt Trump’s mental stability, few would believe that he is crazy enough to trash America’s most cherished institutions just for the fun of it, or out of a malicious desire to harm the country. After all, Trump genuinely seems to embrace an extreme, xenophobic form of “patriotism” that he calls “America First.”
More likely, Trump neither understands nor cares about the damage he is doing to our democracy. Rather, his war on truth is entirely in service of the same end that has motivated him throughout his career, his own self-interest. Everything else is just collateral damage. Not worth worrying about.
Trump’s bullying personality, money, fame and business leverage have enabled him to get his way for decades in the rough and tumble world of New York real estate, usually without accountability. He has brought that same behavior to his presidency, and it is beginning to dawn on him that his words and deeds, fully exposed, are widely seen as violating the norms, ethics and laws that govern public life.
And he knows that the press has only scratched the surface in its reporting on his madness, his Russia connections, and his unethical business dealings.
The drip-drip-drip of ugly revelations is becoming a flood.
Trump’s gonna need an ark.
Trump is building his ark with his war on truth. His crimes and misdemeanors can’t sink him if enough people refuse believe the truth when it is revealed. He knows he can’t fool all the people all the time, but he also knows that he commands a large base of gullible, low-information followers who will always disbelieve the truth about him if it comes from “the fake news press.” As he puts it, “I have the most loyal people . . .I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot people and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Trump is gambling that hoodwinking his credulous base will be enough to keep him afloat.
And he couldn’t care less how much damage he does to the country in order to protect himself. Damn the consequences. He’s probably oblivious to them anyway.
His concern is always, and only, with himself.
Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip Rotner is a writer, attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.