“The press is the enemy” – Richard Nixon to Henry Kissinger, 1972
“[The media] is the enemy of the American people” – Donald Trump, on Twitter, Feb. 17, 2017
The highest purpose of a free press is to speak truth to power.
From time to time that purpose is challenged by demagogues and embattled political leaders, as it is now in Donald Trump’s America, and it was in the early 1970s.
In 1971, when Richard Nixon was president and paranoia reigned in Washington, the New York Times, followed within days by the Washington Post, scored one of the of the great journalistic coups of the century, when it obtained a leaked copy of a 43-volume encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War. Soon dubbed the “Pentagon Papers,” these documents peeled away the tissue of official lies and misinformation that had kept the truth about Vietnam from the American people.
Within two years, the Post, followed by the Times, broke open what quickly became known as the Watergate scandal – the criminal conspiracy and abuse of power that ultimately forced Nixon to resign in 1974.
Nixon, of course, took none of this lying down. His lawyers fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to block publication of the Pentagon papers. He assembled lists of “enemies” in the media. They were wiretapped, vilified and threatened. At one point, the Washington Post publisher, Kay Graham, was threatened with loss of her newspaper’s broadcasting licences; at another, she was threatened with imprisonment.
The similarities between Trump and Nixon are deeply disturbing. They go beyond distrust of the press, which is common enough among politicians everywhere. Trump has identified several pillars of the mainstream media as “enemies of the American people.” They include the New York Times, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and the Washington Post. If CNN had existed in Nixon’s day (it didn’t start until 1980), the two presidents’ lists of enemies would be virtually the same.
The only major media organization that Trump trusts is Fox News, which treats him with kid gloves, although it did lead him into error on the weekend with a report on immigration that made him believe there had been some sort of terrorist attack in Sweden. There had been no such event; it exists in the world of alternative facts, along with the imaginary Bowling Green Massacre.
What distinguishes Trump is not that he gets facts and events wrong, but that he doesn’t care when they are wrong. He plays to his base, which he knows doesn’t care about facts and truth, either. The base has his back as long as he tells them what they want to hear – his promise to Make America Great Again by bringing jobs back to the country, by driving tough America First trade deals, by getting criminals off the street, by expelling illegal immigrants, by barring Muslims, and by protecting Americans from the sort of terrorist violence that did not happen in Sweden on Friday night.
Trump feeds off the emotional approval of his audiences. He needs the sort of enthusiastic support he got from a large partisan crowd in Melbourne, Florida, on Friday. He gets it by treating each presidential appearance as though it were a campaign rally.
He is a politician who needs to have enemies to attack. He stokes his and his crowds’ energy by trotting out a shopworn list of foes. Unfortunately for Trump, Hillary Clinton is no longer a credible threat and the Democratic party is too demoralized to be worth denouncing. The Republicans in Congress, with the notable exception of Arizona senator John McCain, are a spineless lot, too concerned with the mid-term elections in 2018 to stand up to the president.
Happily for Trump, there is always the “dishonest media” – an enemy to denigrate and disown. It may not be what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the First Amendment, but it works for Trump.