If anyone really thought that Donald Trump would somehow, finally, pivot toward becoming a sane, focused, responsible leader once he actually assumed the office of President of the United States, it took exactly one weekend to disabuse him or her of that notion. The first three days of the Trump presidency was nothing more than an extension of the Trump pre-presidency, which was nothing more than an extension of the Trump candidacy. It was an embarrassment of bullshit, an unapologetic and relentless assault on objective reality that showed genuine contempt for the American people and, particularly, the press whose constitutional responsibility it is to keep them informed. We’ve seen politicians and their mouthpieces lie to us before. We’ve never in the modern history of politics seen the kind of blatant gaslighting, the complete disregard of easily verifiable fact, attempted in just the opening 72 hours of the Trump White House. As many have correctly noted, Trump and his people don’t spin — they go full Orwell.
In case a refresher is needed — and the lies came so fast and furious over a single weekend that it’ll be difficult to catalog every single one of them — let’s spell it out. On Saturday, new Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer called an impromptu press conference for no other reason than to berate the media for what he called its denigration of the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. “This was the largest audience to witness an inauguration. Period,” Spicer, now infamously, said. This, even though photos, head-counts and various other reliable metrics proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that attendance at Trump’s swearing in was considerably less than at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. He essentially told everyone not to believe their own eyes and to instead trust him, which is just about the definition of gaslighting. Later, we learned that the presser was held on the direct order of Trump himself, who, CNN reported, was “enraged” at the photos of small crowds and rows of empty bleachers along the inaugural parade route.
Spicer’s news conference followed Trump’s speech at the CIA, in which he unimaginably stood in front of a wall of stars honoring the agency’s dead and — bitched about the media. He touted, of course, the size of the crowd at his inauguration the day before and slammed the “dishonest” press, which he blamed for fomenting a fake feud between him and the U.S.’s intelligence agencies, despite his own words proving that he had, in fact, fought with those very agencies in the lead-up to his inauguration. As he lambasted the press, laughter and applause could be heard in the background, presumably coming from CIA employees gathered to hear him speak. The very next day we learned that, actually, as he did with his chaotic spectacle of a news conference a few weeks ago, Trump brought his own people with him and peppered them throughout the crowd to basically fluff the response and provide the adulation he so desperately craves. He turned a speech to the CIA — in front of a memorial to dead heroes — into a reality show bit.
Then, of course, there was Trump’s most skilled and sociopathic mouthpiece, Kellyanne Conway. Yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press, she dismissed criticism of Sean Spicer’s lies, saying instead that Spicer was merely presenting “alternative facts.” No matter how many times Chuck Todd, to his credit, tried to pin her down with the undeniable truth that there are no such things as “alternative facts,” only lies about real facts, she refused to back down or answer his questions on the subject. She went on to say that the Women’s March was actually a protest against Barack Obama, since he’s the one who’s been president for the past eight years. This lunacy was echoed by Spicer today when he claimed at his first scheduled press conference that those marching weren’t doing so against Donald Trump, despite the once again undeniable fact that that’s exactly who the marchers were protesting. The damn thing was scheduled to coincide with Trump’s inauguration, for God’s sake.
So, again, we’re far into Orwell territory here. We already knew that Donald Trump was compulsive, serial liar, a man who lies about things big and small, vital and pointless, and who hasn’t even an ounce of shame about doing so. We knew that he hated the press because its very job is to report the truth and this tends to run contrary to whatever is coming out of Trump’s mouth at any given moment. What we now know for sure, though, is that Trump’s administration, as riddled as it was always going to be with sycophants and yes-men, will toe the line and provide cover for Trump’s lies by going right along with him, distorting the facts at every turn and expecting Americans to just give up and accept their funhouse mirror version of reality. What stands between that grotesque worldview and its success at upending fact and replacing it with nonsense on a huge scale is twofold: It’s our unwillingness to swallow it and a stalwart press’s willingness to take action. But what kind of action should the press take?
If nothing else, the behavior of Trump and his lackeys, their outright hatred of the truth and the press that seeks it, has given America’s journalists something they haven’t had maybe in the modern history of the Fourth Estate: true freedom. Not just freedom, but a mandate to use it. Since the rise of TV, especially, journalism has been about access, and that’s been its downfall. Reporters believed themselves tethered to the powerful by their supposed need to get the story directly from the authority figures they reported on. This was always bullshit, but too many journalists fell into that trap. What Trump has done, though, is loosed them from those constraints by assailing the free press at any and all opportunities simply because, again, anything that isn’t constant adulation he considers his enemy. Trump can’t take criticism. He can’t stand nagging questions he doesn’t feel like answering. He wants only affirmation at all times. And when he doesn’t get it, he throws a temper tantrum like a spoiled child. He’s not going to give the press a break, so there’s no need whatsoever for the press to behave as if he’ll ever provide it access for any price less than its very soul.
So the right way to respond is to do what many media watchers are advocating right now, including The Washington Post‘s Margaret Sullivan, GQ‘s Jack Moore, and Slate‘s Dan Gillmore. Basically, stop giving the Trump propaganda machine an ounce of air and assume an entirely adversarial — fair, but adversarial — stance from outside the Trump bubble of bullshit. That means several things: refusing to book Kellyanne Conway for any reason whatsoever, given that her segments aren’t actually informative in any way, they’re merely meant to refute any and all criticism of Donald Trump and to muddy the waters of reality through obfuscation and flat out lies; refusing to carry Sean Spicer’s press conferences live, given that Spicer has already proven himself to be a liar even in the face of irrefutable contrary evidence, and running them only after they’ve been thoroughly fact-checked; and covering Trump’s travails through old school journalistic digging and investigating, far removed from the access and stenography we’ve seen in the recent past.
The beautiful thing about Trump’s hostility toward the press is that there’s very little chance it’s going to end at any point — and that means that responsible journalists have had it made known to them immediately that there’s no point in trying to cozy up to this administration. Trump has made it perfectly clear that the truth means nothing to him and the job of the press is to get to the truth, making the two arch-nemeses. The press needs to be fair to Trump, because any mistake will give Trump a scalp to boast about for eternity and something he can point to to say he’s right about how dishonest the media is, but it needs to be ferocious and fearless in reporting on him. Trump is going to spend however long he’s president trying to confuse and distract the press. The press can’t fall for it. More than at any period in its political existence, it has to stay focused and it has to stay united in solidarity, because no less than the President of the United States has singled it out and declared war on it. That’s because no less than the Constitution of the United States has singled it out for protection, because its job is that important.
The Trump era will be a disaster for the country. There should be little doubt about that. But, just maybe, it can be good for one thing: reigniting the fires of strong, hard-nosed journalism in this country. Trump and his cadre of liars have thrown down the gauntlet. It’s up to the journalists who report on them to find their balls and their souls again. The entire country is depending on them. Trump wants a war with the press? The press needs to give it to him by hitting him with the one thing that will always be his undoing: the truth.