It’s one thing that the Russians interfered with our election last November and sowed confusion and doubt about Hillary Clinton and about our electoral process, while obviously trying to get Americans to do the impossible and vote for a disturbed candidate. We should expect our anti-democratic enemies to muck up our experiment with democracy, to attack our democratic institutions, including, most important of all, a free press.
But it is another thing, and a very dangerous thing, to have the clear beneficiary of Russian interference to himself attack our democratic institutions, to especially attack and undermine the legitimacy of the real press, those outlets outside of his influence and control. Plenty of people have criticized Tr-mp for saying, four days ago via a tweet, the following:
From Chris Wallace at Fox “News” (“I believe that crosses an important line”) to Senator John McCain (“That’s how dictators get started”), many expressed their concerns about what it means to have Tr-mp say such things about the press, things like what he said in Florida on Saturday at a campaign rally just a month into his term:
They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, “nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” “Truth itself,” he said, “becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” that was June 14, my birthday, 1807. But despite all their lies, misrepresentations, and false stories, they could not defeat us in the primaries, and they could not defeat us in the general election, and we will continue to expose them for what they are, and most importantly, we will continue to win, win, win. We are not going to let the fake news tell us what to do, how to live, or what to believe. We are free and independent people and we will make our own choices.We are here today to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Those words came from a man whose personal pathology produces lies at a faster flow rate than water draining from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario at Niagara Falls. And for those of us who know a little about Jefferson, it is nauseating to see him used in such a damned dishonest way. Jefferson, despite often criticizing what he read in the highly biased newspapers of his day, was an advocate of a free press, as most people know (“were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”). But what people forget about Jefferson’s famous remark about preferring a free press over government, is the next line:
But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.
The crucial thing is that people are “capable of reading.” That phrase certainly goes beyond merely being able to recognize the words, either written words, as in Jefferson’s day, or spoken words on television or radio or podcasts in our time. It carries with it the idea of comprehending what one reads or hears. And such comprehension is not always easy. That’s why so many people get their “news” from headlines, which are essentially crude summaries of the gist of news stories. Headline writers are doing the hard work of comprehension. But as we found all too often in the campaign coverage last year, headline writers failed, and sometimes failed miserably (often to sensationalize stories to get attention), to accurately summarize the stories. People incapable of reading in the Jeffersonian sense were thus misled.
The biggest danger with what Tr-mp is doing, in trying to delegitimize the press he can’t control or the press that isn’t predisposed to support him, is related to people’s tendency to avoid the harder work of actually comprehending what they read, of putting it into, say, a historical context or in the context of other events happening at the same time. The people behind Tr-mp’s efforts to destroy the credibility of outlets like The New York Times or CNN or other independent sources know exactly what they are doing. Conservatives, since the movement became a more organized and media-savvy effort with the founding of William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1955, have always attacked the mainstream press as biased, as favoring liberal ideas against their own. That’s not new.
What is new is that Tr-mp is louder and uglier and more openly willing to actually tell complete and demonstrable lies about the press, to the point of now actually calling independent journalism the enemy of the people. That is unprecedented for a man holding the office, quite illegitimately, that he holds. Such an act is exactly why many of us work to unpresident him. Tr-mp is deliberately blinding people with his fierce anti-press rhetoric. He wants them to “see through” everything they read or hear, to not believe it unless he authenticates it. I often quote what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, and will do so again:
You can’t go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.
Blindness is the result of always seeing through things Tr-mp wants his followers to see through. His delegitimization of a free and independent press has a post-modernist touch to it. There is no truth out there until Tr-mp calls it truth. No facts exist until they are validated by him. Journalists lie. Tr-mp tells the truth. Journalists hate people who like Tr-mp. And Tr-mp is there to protect his people from those journalists, from their lies. All that is required is for one to take a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” into the Tr-mp “movement” and become a believer. “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he said during his disturbing convention speech last summer, “I am your voice.” Accept that simple claim and then quarter-truths and half-truths and lies easily become gospel.
And if enough people accept that simple claim, then our democracy perishes.