We are in the middle of one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history and President Donald Trump is still focused on old scores, political foes and undermining the checks and balances that provide some stability in a world whose foundations have been shaken.
He continues to brag about the TV ratings for press conferences that are supposed to be about informing a troubled nation that faces an uncertain present — not to mention future. He continues to assert, with apparently unassailable conviction, that everything his administration does is terrific, and better than anyone could have done it. He marginalizes any criticism of him or his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, dismissing it as an attack by political opponents plotting to overthrow him (those who cannot admit mistakes are destined to repeat them), including among those opponents the news media he tars with a broad brush, calling them enemies, fake and worse.
But all this is old news by now.
It may be a calculated strategy by a master manipulator for political gain, or just this president being the only president he knows how to be, and the person who the nation saw on the campaign trail, warts and all, and elected. Either way, it is deeply troubling during the crisis.
This is the time when all the bickering, partisanship, old feuds and whatever other political baggage is constantly freighted around inside the Beltway needs to be stowed for the duration by people who have to know they must rise above that if they are going to see a path forward. This president does not appear able to do that, though sometimes he does seem to try.
The pandemic has revealed a lot about this country — its heart, its resiliency (broadband networks included), its heroes — but not the least the importance of who we elect as president.
This president’s efforts to undercut the credibility of government institutions including the courts, congress and the media, may in the best of times seem like an odd parlor game, particularly when he does it from a Twitter account. But today it feels more like an existential threat to the balance of powers at the heart of the republic. Undermining that system during an existential crisis is problematic, and shows a troubling lack of understanding or empathy.
The president from the outset has said he was going to be presidential, more terrifically presidential than anyone has ever been, with exclamation points. Saying it obviously doesn’t make it so. But he is the president, so what he does and says by definition becomes some new presidential metric — a bar, at least in terms of civility and respect for institutions, that is remarkably low.
Which brings us to the institution we are, selfishly, most interested in — a vigorous and free press.
Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, who was an editor of that paper’s Watergate coverage, put together a report for the Committee to Protect Journalists headlined “The Trump Administration and the Media.” And Downie did not bury the lede: “Trump’s most effective ploy has been to destroy the credibility of the press, dangerously undermining truth and consensus even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to kill tens of thousands of Americans.”
Yes, it is from a former editor of the Washington Post, so the president is unlikely to see himself reflected in the report’s pages since the Post — along with The New York Times, CNN, NBC News, CBS News and fill-in-the-blank news, depending on the day and the story — are all in the president’s Twitter doghouse. To him they are enemies out to bring him down, a Nixonian response that some argue even trumps Nixon.
Attacks Serve a Purpose
At one point in the report, to suggest there is method in the president’s madness, Downie cites Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes in a speech to a Society of Professional Journalists gathering. When the president-elect started attacking the press off camera before a 2016 interview, she said, she asked why he kept up the attacks given that he had already won the office. His response, said Stahl: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so that, when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
We are not saying the media should be above criticism. But a drumbeat of blanket condemnations in mean tweets is troubling in the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times. When a shelter-in-place country relies on those media outlets to provide some kind of perspective on their turned-upside down world, such attacks are counterproductive to the national pandemic fight.
The president needs to stop, if he can, and more people, from all points on the political compass, need to stand up and demand it of him.
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