Amid the horror of President Donald Trump’s press conference today -- his praise for the “fine people” he claimed marched among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, over the weekend; the declaration that they had a good point in opposing the removal of statues celebrating Confederate leaders from the public square; the obvious lie that he had needed more time to get all the facts before criticizing the protesters; the cheers for the president that followed from white supremacist leaders -- came a moment of unusual clarity.
In a mere 25 words, the president laid out everything you need to know about his view of the media and its role in public life and continued his strategy of convincing his supporters that critical journalists are all acting in bad faith, a political effort that could have dire consequences.
Asked why he had blamed both the white supremacist protestors and the counter-protesters for Saturday’s conflagration, Trump said that he believed both sides were responsible. “I have no doubt about it,” he added, “and you don’t have any doubt about it either.” “And,” he said, gesturing for attention and raising his voice as reporters tried to interject, “if you reported it accurately, you would say it.”
That’s the president’s media analysis in a nutshell: Any time the media’s coverage diverges from the world he describes, he just told the public, the journalists are deliberately lying to the public. There is no possibility that he might be wrong, no room for dissent. There are two types of journalists: The ones who report that what the president believes is true, and the liars.
That’s one of the few constants to the Trump administration, and a key way he’s wrangled the support of a large faction of the conservative press, in spite of his failures and weaknesses. The media stands against me, Trump says again and again. They are the enemy. I am telling you the truth, he tells his flock. They are the liars.
It’s an argument the president needs to make because the world Trump describes does not match the one we inhabit. On issue after issue, large and small, the president lies to us. Only by undermining anyone who provides contrary information -- the Democrats, the Republicans, the courts, the bureaucrats, and the media most of all -- can he maintain his support.
Meanwhile, the president supports a powerful network of sycophants -- from established players like Sean Hannity, who spent last night’s show attacking the press for their criticism of the president’s earlier Charlottesville comments, and Fox & Friends, which laid the groundwork for his defense of the protestors, to rising fringe figures like Alex Jones and Jack Posobiec. All of them are willing to say that reality is whatever Trump says it is.
It’s a dangerous path. Most people now trust the press more than they trust Trump, but he still retains the loyalty of his core supporters -- who include, of course, the sorts of people who listen to the president’s propagandists and are overjoyed to hear the president of the United States defend white supremacists and neo-Nazis. As of yet, the president has largely avoided major calamities not of his own making. What happens when one strikes -- a war, a large-scale terrorist attack, a natural disaster -- and the American people need information from the president? What happens when he tells the truth, and they don’t believe him?
What happens when he lies again, and journalists call him out, and he says they are the real liars?
As of yet, all we’ve lost amid Trump’s lies and hatred and filth are our dignity as a country. Things can still get much worse. And as long as Trump is president, they will.