Trump’s takeover of the truth must be stopped
Donald Trump is such a consummate liar that in coming months and years our democracy will depend more than ever on the independent press – finding the truth, reporting it and holding Trump accountable for his lies.
But Trump’s strategy is to denigrate and disparage the press in the public’s mind, convincing the public that it shouldn’t believe the press because it’s engaged in a conspiracy against him.
Trump wants to use his tweets, rallies and videos to make himself the only credible source of public information about what is happening and what he’s doing.
It is the two-step strategy of despots. And it has already started.
Step 1: Disparage the press and lie about them.
At a televised speech at the CIA, Trump declared himself to be in a "running war" with the news media, and described reporters as "the most dishonest human beings on earth."
Trump then issued a stream of lies about what the press had reported, accusing the media of falsely underreporting the number of people showing up to hear his inaugural address. (When aerial photographs confirmed media accounts, he called the acting head of the National Park Service and demanded new photos.)
Trump then accused the media of falsely reporting that he had disparaged the CIA. "They sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community," Trump said, continuing to criticize the press for its "dishonest" reporting.
In fact, Trump had repeatedly vilified the CIA and the entire intelligence community for reporting about Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election in order to help him. He had even accused intelligence officials of being behind a "Nazi-like smear campaign" against him.
Then, at White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s first televised news briefing, Spicer blasted the press even more about its supposed false reporting of Inauguration Day events and numbers. (When confronted with Spicer’s outright lies, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, told NBC that Spicer had merely given "alternative facts.")
Later in the week, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, said the media should "keep its mouth shut" and asserted that the press is now the "opposition party."
Step 2: Threaten to circumvent the press and take the "truth" directly to the people.
At his CIA speech, after denigrating the media, Trump issued an ominous warning. "We caught them, and we caught them in a beauty. And I think they’re going to pay a big price."
What price? One big clue came the next day at Spicer’s press briefing when he said, "The American people deserve better. As long as [Trump] serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message directly to the American people."
We’re not talking Roosevelt-like "fireside chats" here. Trump’s tweets have already been firestorms of invective directed at critics, some of whom have been threatened by Trump followers stirred up by the tweets.
And CEOs pray their companies aren’t targets, because stock prices of the companies he has already vilified have dropped immediately after his diatribes.
Trump won’t stop with tweets. In all likelihood he’ll also take his message to the public through rallies, videos and live feeds on social media. We’re seeing the emergence of pro-Trump news sources that get access at the expense of traditional news companies.
Some Republicans seem willing to play along. Last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said it was "better to get your news directly from the president. In fact it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth."
The ultimate "price" the media will pay comes when a significant portion of the public trusts Trump’s direct communications more than it trusts the media.
But when that happens, our democracy ends.
From Trump’s perspective, it’s the perfect solution to his problem that the media reports the truth when Trump doesn’t like the truth.
And it’s the perfect punishment for a press that dares criticize him: He makes the press irrelevant by substituting himself as the source of truth.
At that point, most of the public will believe his inauguration attracted a record number of attendees, that he was elected in a "landslide," and that the election was marred by "massive voter fraud."
They’ll believe anything he wants them to believe – humans don’t cause climate change; Putin is a good friend of America; Muslims should be presumed dangerous; vaccinations cause autism; scientists shouldn’t be trusted; and critics of Trump are enemies of America.
Four years from now, they may even believe Trump made America great again.
Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few," now available in paperback.