The “media” has become so fragmented that it is impossible to talk about it as a single entity. Here we are interested in what might be called the Free Press, that part of the media that tries to report facts accurately and hold the government accountable for its actions. Today, the Free Press includes the reporting and journalism of the nation’s dwindling newspapers and news magazines, the news reporting and commentary divisions of the major broadcast TV networks, some (but not all) of the politically-oriented cable news networks, and some of the Internet-based political news services and sites. The Free Press is not neutral or “objective,” and includes a full range of ideological orientations. Although the Free Press does not adhere to a single political orthodoxy, it does share a commitment to “fact-based” reporting and commentary.
The Free Press did its job during the campaign
The Free Press showed a surprising degree of unanimity during the Presidential campaign. For example, among newspapers both liberal and conservative in their leanings, Donald Trump was endorsed by essentially none. This degree of solidarity was without precedent in any prior Presidential campaign. It illustrates the unique nature of the Trump candidacy and the extent to which its dangers were foreseeable from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. To its credit, the Free Press clearly fulfilled its duty to warn the citizenry about Donald Trump. Many of the warnings were quite eloquent. Unfortunately, too many citizens were not listening, or were conditioned to distrust whatever the “mainstream media” had to say, and Trump was elected.
Should President-elect Trump be normalized?
Now the Free Press faces a new and greater challenge. Typically, the media plays a significant role in normalizing and legitimizing a new President. There is an implicit bargain here that only a candidate like Trump could call into question. The new President implicitly promises to govern within the laws and norms of the country and the office of the Presidency, and the media implicitly promises essentially to vouch for the new Administration and introduce it to the country with civility, respect, and deference.
But Donald Trump represents something new. He is the same person who was universally rejected by the Free Press during the campaign. He is still totally unqualified to be President. The only difference is, he is going to be President. But unlike any other President-elect in American history, Trump has failed to live up to his side of the implicit bargain. Rather than embrace the rule of law, Trump has continued to express, time and again, a deep disdain for the fundamental promises of the Presidential oath, that is, to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Former CIA officer and conservative Presidential candidate Evan McMullin accurately described Trump’s relationship with the Constitution in a recent New York Times editorial:
“He had questioned judicial independence, threatened the freedom of the press, called for violating Muslims’ equal protection under the law, promised the use of torture and attacked Americans based on their gender, race and religion. He had also undermined critical democratic norms including peaceful debate and transitions of power, commitment to truth, freedom from foreign interference and abstention from the use of executive power for political retribution.”
Whether Trump’s lack of respect for the Constitution is a function of ignorance or authoritarian design remains to be seen. The question for the Free Press is whether such a person should be given the kind of deference and adulatory coverage typically awarded to an incoming President. Although some members of the Press will choose to engage in business as usual, there is a strong case to be made for a different approach with regard to this particular incoming President.
Rather than use the pre- and post-inauguration days of the Trump Presidency to normalize and rationalize the Trump Administration, the Free Press should consider this period to be an opportunity for deep reflection on the meaning of the Constitution, the Constitutional obligations that every President assumes when taking the oath of office, and whether and to what extent Trump, his surrogates, and the Republicans in control of Congress are prepared to uphold those obligations in word and deed. This should be an educational moment, perhaps the most critical moment for civic education in our nation’s history. And right now, the Free Press is the only national institution that can launch and lead such an educational moment. Another point from Evan McMullin’s editorial is worth quoting:
“We can no longer assume that all Americans understand the origins of their rights and the importance of liberal democracy. We need a new era of civic engagement that will reawaken us to the cause of liberty and equality. That engagement must extend to ensuring that our elected representatives uphold the Constitution, in deed and discourse — even if doing so puts them at odds with their party.”
The Free Press should dedicate itself in this interim period not to legitimizing Trump just because he has won the election, but to reaffirming its Constitutionally-protected role to hold the government accountable for its actions. Trump’s extra-constitutional pronouncements and promises should be subjected to the most exacting analyses and scrutiny. The Free Press can and should help return the Constitution to the center of public debate regarding the Trump Presidency. The words of the Constitution may be the only starting point from which our polarized political tribes can rebuild a common understanding of what the American Republic is, and why all Americans should be concerned by Trump’s lazy strain of ignorant, fact-free authoritarianism.
How to cover a pathological liar
Beyond holding Trump accountable for his anti-constitutional statements and actions, the Free Press must also hold him accountable for another uniquely Trumpian trait – his constant and outrageous lying to the American people. Most politicians lie only when they think they can get away with it. And they usually have some rationale prepared to justify the lie if asked. Trump’s lies are unique in that they are blatantly false and are presented with no evidence to support them. They are simply statements about a reality that does not exist in fact, and Trump expects his listeners to believe them and embrace that false reality based on his word alone. Just as he believes he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not be held accountable for it, Trump believes he can spout any lie, no matter how contrary to known facts, and it will be accepted as true simply because he says it.
Trump’s mode of lying has been referred to as “gaslighting” because it presents an alternate reality that forces people to question their own grasp on reality rather than the lie itself. Not surprisingly, the Free Press has been struggling with how to deal with this new phenomenon as Trump transitions into the Presidency. There have been several useful discussions, most of which seem to come down on the right side of the question: the media has an obligation not only to identify Trump’s lies as lies but also, as James Fallows writes in The Atlantic, to expand the context of their coverage in two ways:
First, the Free Press needs to “fight for reality itself” by exposing the political motivations and costs that underlie a deliberate policy of constant lying by a President of the United States. The media should not treat each lie as a separate event, but rather contextualize his lies as part of a wider pattern: an unprecedented campaign of chronic lying by a President of the United States. In addition, the media should never fall for the obvious feint embedded in each lie. Trump’s lies are always efforts to distract attention away from something else that Trump sees as threatening. Usually, that threat is an inconvenient fact, a part of “real reality” that exposes some crack in Trump’s carefully constructed self-image of infallibility. The focus of coverage should always include consideration of what facts Trump’s lies are trying to hide.
Second, the Free Press needs to “deal with this kind of man” by contextualizing Trump’s lying as a symptom of a deeper personality disorder. As Fallows notes, the media was appropriately reluctant to “medicalize” Trump during the campaign. But a chronic pattern of constant lying cannot be dismissed as a political tactic alone, especially when the liar seems unable to voluntarily control his lying even when it is dangerously self-defeating (as was seen repeatedly in the campaign). Fallows quotes the advice of a medical professional for journalists covering Trump:
“Nobody seems to realize that normal rules do not apply when you are interviewing a narcissist. You can’t go about this in the way you were trained, because he is an expert at manipulating the very rules you learned. It’s clear to me that reporters (and anyone else) who will deal with DT directly need to take a crash course in handling someone displaying these behaviors.”
All of these actions – refusing to normalize Trump, calling out his anti-constitutional views, educating the public on the true meaning of the Constitution, exposing and contextualizing Trump’s constant lying, and confronting his narcissistic outbursts and behaviors – all will contribute to weakening Trump’s ability to present himself as the authoritarian savior he believes himself to be. They are also sure to trigger a Trumpian backlash against the “dishonest” and “disgusting” media that will make his current ravings against the First Amendment seem tame in comparison.
Job #1: Hold Trump accountable for his performance
But all this will merely be a sideshow if Trump’s Svengali-like grip on his ardent supporters is not loosened. And the only way that will happen is if Trump fails to deliver on his promises to them and is held accountable for that failure. And holding Trump accountable for his performance as President will be the final and most important task the Free Press has before it.
Once Trump takes office, there is always the possibility, however slim, that he will succeed in all his promises. There are many, many good reasons to believe that this will not be the case, but Trump supporters and apologists will gleefully point out that his Presidential campaign faced the same skepticism, and he won. But there is a key difference between campaign and incumbency. To win the election, Trump only had to convince enough people to believe his promises. But to be a successful President, he actually has to deliver on those promises. And that task requires a confrontation with reality and facts that never occurs in a campaign. Trump’s history as a businessman reveals that he is very good at making promises, but very poor at delivering on them. Just ask Trump University students, Trump casino investors, or Trump small-business contractors. So it is possible that Trump will perform successfully as President. But the smart money must be betting against him.
The role of the Free Press is to document the miracle of success if it occurs, giving Trump credit where credit is due, but also to hold him accountable for his failures, not only for his lies, insults, bullying, and revenge-seeking, but also for his performance.
Trump is already backpedaling on many of his most outrageous campaign promises. But that is still in the realm of words, not actions. Trump supporters have expectations that their lives are going to be improved by a Donald Trump Presidency. Jobs are going to return, incomes are going to rise, taxes are going to be cut. And they expect to start feeling better about themselves as non-white Americans are put in their place, illegal immigrants are deported, Muslims are banned from entering the country, and terrorists are defeated around the world.
Trump may be able to “gaslight” his supporters on the more esoteric of these promises (as in “I never said that”), but people are not so easily persuaded about what is happening in their own daily lives. If jobs don’t come back, if small towns and rural areas continue to stagnate, if prices go up because of trade wars and barriers, if retirement funds tank because of another Wall Street meltdown, if incomes fall even further in a new recession or depression, if families lose their health insurance and family members die, people will notice.
As the Trump Presidency unfolds, it is the duty of the Free Press to keep track of his promises and maintain an ongoing scorecard of his progress, if any, toward fulfilling those promises or reneging on them. Throughout the campaign, Trump proved to be his own worst enemy when it came to performance. There is no reason to expect that to change after he becomes President. The Free Press must hold him accountable for his behavior and his performance, while at the same time withstanding what will likely be the greatest Presidential temper tantrum in American history.