We should take 45's attacks on the free press seriously. But not for the reasons you might think.
That man has been tweeting again.
Oh, he’s been doing plenty of other things, too — just Thursday morning, Trump signed another executive order nobody actually asked for, this one part of his party’s relentless dedication to decimating the American health care system for fun and profit. (And before you get your panties in a wad: Don’t worry, Trump’s only jacking up Grandma’s chemo costs to appeal to his base — he doesn’t really mean it.) He’s also been throwing paper towels at starving Puerto Ricans and hitting the links while California burns, really making sure to do all of the very presidential things that a president must do when he is presidenting.
But mostly he’s been tweeting, apparently firing off his piddly twaddle behind the back of his chief of staff, John Kelly, a real-life army man who can do just about anything except keep wee Trump from escaping between his legs and hiding down a back stairwell with his only friends: The 140 Twitter characters that are always available to blink blankly in the leathery glow of the commander-in-chief, any time of day or night.
This week, Trump confessed to his little pocket pals that he’s been feeling blue about the existence of a free press in this here American democracy, because the boys and girls who go on the tee-vee lately say such nasty things about him, and really — shouldn’t somebody do something about that? Shouldn’t it be, say, illegal, maybe, to criticize the president in a news broadcast?
After all, what is the point of becoming president of the United States if you can’t install yourself on a gold-plated Trump Tower terlet and hurl grammatically appalling insults across the internet at everyone from Gold Star families to Rosie O’Donnell to the cast of Hamilton to football-player “sons of bitches” to your own personal FBI director with absolute impunity and assurance that nobody on earth is allowed to say boo to you about it?
I don’t mean to make too much fun of what the president is actually saying, and what he’s signaling and who he’s signaling to, when he fantasizes publicly, if clunkily, about shredding the First Amendment into little ticker-tape pieces of two-hundred-year-old parchment. I do mean to make fun of the craven hairpiece himself, especially while I still can — he is an appalling creep, an admitted abuser, an incompetent and foolish man-child who is openly loathed by the people personally and professionally closest to him.
But I think we should take seriously his speculation that the American press is too free. I call this his “speculation” because I don’t think it’s possible to know what this president actually thinks and believes. Donald Trump lies too often and too boldly for his words to match whatever limited capacity for an inner consciousness the man possesses. He changes tacks and reverses course on major policy claims and plans too often and too unexpectedly for his actions to ever match up with any beliefs he could possibly hold. The only conviction the man is ever likely to have will come when he gets rung up on some cheap Ponzi scheme in fifteen years.
We should take Trump’s free-press attacks seriously not because they’re serious attacks, themselves — they aren’t. Trump can’t actually revoke a “license” for NBC or any other broadcaster, because that’s not the way licensing works, and it’s not the way the office of the president works, and it’s also not the way the Federal Communications Commission works, and there’s no reason to believe Mr. President Donald Trump, broadcast television media mogul, actually knows that.
We should take Trump’s free-press attacks seriously for two reasons: First, because they legitimize — wrongly, and ridiculously, but legitimize nevertheless — what has become a fundamental belief of the American center- and center-right and right-wing: That “the media,” as a conglomerate entity, is “liberal,” and therefore hostile to objective, fair reporting on political issues. There is, of course, no such thing as “the media,” an industry that is made up of tens of thousands of people, many of whom are very good and many of whom are very bad at their jobs. “Both sides”-style reporting prevails almost everywhere and is taught, with a few variations, in American journalism programs.
And second, we should take Trump’s tweets on the press seriously because they show us who he is — not because he’s a great yet dangerous leader and we need to understand the movement behind him, but because he is an awful, cowardly and inept leader and we need to understand the movement behind him.
Trump’s latest anti-media jag came after reports of a disastrous meeting about nuclear armament in which Trump is reported to have made some of the more astoundingly asinine remarks of his entire presidency, suggesting that America increase its nuclear arsenal tenfold. Trump is going after the journalists who broke the story not because they display his political ignorance and presidential incompetence on nuclear policy, but because of the name Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is said to have called Trump after the meeting: “Moron.”
Trump is embarrassed, because of course, it’s embarrassing to be called a “moron” by anybody, but especially by someone who works for you. Trump likes to try to embarrass others, but he cannot abide being embarrassed, himself. So he’s willing to figuratively trample over the most basic tenets of our democracy to protect himself from it.
This delights his supporters. They are relieved to finally have a president who is speaking truth to the powerful media establishment, never mind that there is no one office more powerful than that of the president, an office currently occupied by a man who built his brand as a major face of the broadcast media establishment.
Trump, and those who stand by him, from coast to coast and on Capitol Hill, are never as comfortable as they are when they are playing victim, thrashing and gnashing under the oppressive drift of the liberal snowflake establishment, even as a hostile foreign government, empowered by the president’s own political allies, infiltrates our social networks with the real “fake news.”
Trump talks so much about the “fake news” because he’s trying to convince us to tune into his own version — to his incomprehensible, ill-crafted Tweets and the handful of propaganda farms, like Breitbart and Infowars, that propagate Trump’s (white) nationalistic drivel. Trump’s bloviatory nonsense about finding it “disgusting” that the press is able to report freely isn’t about honesty or truth. It’s about building a rhetorical sandbox and telling people that burying their heads in it will make all the uncomfortable realities of modern-day America magically disappear.
Turn off the “fake news,” and there go all the bullies: Those black men kneeling on the football field and getting shot by cops, those brown families being thrown in immigrant detention, those disabled folks storming the halls of Congress and those unsightly poor children drowning in hurricanes disappear once and for all. It is strange, how Trump’s “bullies” have one thing in common: they are unafraid to unleash criticism on the president and his administration. You can be sure that when Trump accuses a journalist of producing “fake news,” that journalist has struck a nerve and you should pay even closer attention to the story.
Of course, that’s what people do in a democracy; blind obedience to an egotistical figurehead is the stuff of dictatorships. Which is why the tweeter in chief wants you to stay tuned to his channel. Don’t change that dial — after all, you might miss something important.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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