By Steve Roman
President Trump’s attacks on the press and judiciary are a recurring theme at his campaign rallies, in his tweets, and in his interviews. In his forthcoming book, “Enemy of the People,” published by the Brookings Institution Press, award-winning journalist Marvin Kalb argues that these institutions are a bulwark in the defense of democracy and that the president’s efforts to undermine and delegitimize the press and judiciary are venturing into dangerous territory. This excerpt from the book illustrates the frightening circumstances confronting journalism.
Attacking Both the Judiciary and the Press
On February 17, 2017, inspired, as we now know, by the disgruntled Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, Trump ramped up his running war with the media, mindlessly resurrecting one of the ugliest phrases of the twentieth century and directing it at the American press: “enemy of the American people,” he blathered. He used it a few more times early in his administration (it sparked a powerfully negative response, especially from reporters), and he chose to rely more frequently on the less inflammatory but more effective phrase, “fake news,” and it worked. A few weeks before his election in 2016, Trump had boasted to TV host and former governor Mike Huckabee, “One of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with is ‘fake.’” Again, he did not know the historical roots of “fake news,” which had been around for a long time, but he stumbled upon it during his campaign, and when he found it to be a useful political tool, he employed it repeatedly as president. It became his standout slur and Collins Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2017.
His intent in blasting the press was no different from his deliberate demeaning of the judiciary—to downgrade and diminish the independent role of both in a democracy, and in this way to pump up his ego, to rally his base, and to protect his position as “master of the universe.”
As of mid-2018, judging by public opinion polls, Trump has emerged as the winner of his war with the press, in part because the press is an easy target for demagogues—it operates in public, warts and all on full display—but also because the press remains more intent on covering the president than in fighting him. Although Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, reports with a sigh of relief that a majority of Americans still consider the media to be “critical or important to democracy,” he still notes that a healthy and growing minority, 43 percent, hold a decidedly negative view of the press. Polling by the Poynter Institute, released in December 2017, tends to parallel Gallup’s numbers, but ends up painting a more negative picture.
- One out of three Americans, says Poynter, believes the press is, as Trump charged, the “enemy of the American people.”
- 31 percent say the media is “preventing” political leaders from doing their job.
- 67 percent accept Trump’s view of sexual harassment claims against him, saying it’s all “fake news.”
- 25 percent feel the government should have the right to stop publication of stories it considers “biased or inaccurate,” which would be a direct violation of the First Amendment guarantee of “freedom of the press.”
An Axios/SurveyMonkey poll, conducted June 15–19, 2018, said “nearly all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (92%) think that traditional news outlets knowingly report false or misleading stories, at least sometimes.” Fifty-three percent of Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents were said to believe the same thing about the press. But where can the serious citizen get trustworthy news, if not from the press? The press is the essential middleman for information. If the press is not trusted, then the government can say whatever it wants—and get away with it.
In a Politico-Morning Consult poll, 74 percent of Democrats said they “trust” the media; only 19 percent of Republicans did. This is a perfect mirror image of the deep divide in American politics, which has existed for several administrations. Again, Trump is not the sole reason for the great divide, but he has exploited it—and made it much worse.
So far, all polls in the Trump era seem to reflect the president’s remarkable ability to read, influence, and change public opinion, especially among Republicans. One example: during and even after the Cold War, Republicans have been reliably anti-Russian and anticommunist. Now, because Trump has thrown himself into a strange love affair with Vladimir Putin and the Russians, much of the GOP has switched its position on Russia. No explanation has been offered, but now many Republicans have begun to sound like Democrats, and Democrats like the Republicans of old, with the GOP apparently hoping for some sort of big Trump/Putin deal, and the Democrats not believing either president can really deliver or be trusted.
To drive home his point, whether about Russia or taxes, Trump follows the example of a number of twentieth-century dictators who repeated their lies so often people thought the lies were truths. A White House source told Axios’s Mike Allen, “He just hammers something into submission, whatever it may be. . . . With the media, he just wears it down, wears it down,” until, Allen added, a reporter makes a mistake covering Trump, and the president leaps on the mistake and uses it as proof that none of the media can be trusted. Most Republicans believe and trust the president, not the media (except for Fox News, of course), and an alarming number have begun to wonder why America still needs freedom of the press, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In 1945, the astute British writer, George Orwell, author of the dark political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote, “If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be prosecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” So much, in his view, depended on public opinion, more important on occasion than even the law.
Trump’s persistent devaluing of the press as “fake news” has caused considerable damage to the concept of freedom of the press and therefore to one of democracy’s most basic principles. For example, in July 2017, NBC News reported that the president was planning a major expansion of the American nuclear arsenal, a fact the president immediately labeled “fake news,” even though he knew it was true. Trump tweeted that the report was “pure fiction made up to demean” him, and, in anger, he threatened to strip NBC of its broadcasting license. Trump obviously did not know that he, even as president, had no such power—the FCC licenses individual stations, not networks. Still, he sounded tough, a network was threatened, and his conservative base, which distrusts the media in any case, was delighted.
To learn more about and to buy Marvin Kalb’s book, visit: “Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, the New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy.”