Trump’s almost comical love-hate relationship with the free press depends solely on how much we’re willing to flatter him. And that kind of narcissism is more dangerous than you think.
If you’re one of his 58 million Twitter followers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Donald Trump loathes the free press. The pugnacious president frequently calls reporters the “enemy of the people”, a phrase used by Stalin and Mao to justify their murderous purges not so many decades ago. But Trump doesn’t hate the news media. On the contrary, he’s infatuated with it. The reason he’s attacking journalists is because they won’t reciprocate his affection.
As a New York real estate developer, Trump would always find time in his busy schedule of bankrupting casinos and sleazing around beauty pageants to court the attentions of tabloid reporters. If a journalist needed to fill column inches, Trump would happily fly them to Mar-a-Lago and fill them in on his boardroom triumphs and romantic exploits, both real and imagined. Publicity is, and always has been, his oxygen. As AJ Benza of the Daily News remarked to the Columbia Journalism Review, Trump “doesn’t check his pulse to see if he’s alive. He checks the papers and the internet so he can know that he exists.”
Back then, when he was regarded as a ludicrous but mostly harmless orange vulgarian, it was easy for Trump to manipulate a compliant media into giving him what his defective pathology so desperately craves—adulation and validation. But a ludicrous orange vulgarian with the nuclear codes is a different proposition entirely. Reporters can no longer treat him like a cartoon character; they’ve got a duty to scrutinize him and his lousy administration. By losing the press, the ultimate control freak has lost authority over the thing he cares most about—his brand—and that’s why he’s lashing out.
There’s no overarching strategy or ideology behind Trump’s attacks on the media. A sophisticated authoritarian – Russian president Vladimir Putin springs to mind – appreciates the subtleties of the dark arts of propaganda and disinformation. He recognizes that a liberal democracy cannot exist without a free press, that unrestricted journalism threatens his legitimacy and all consuming authority.
Trump is too solipsistic to possess the intellectual curiosity to contemplate any of this. His vendetta against the press is a product of his narcissism, and his narcissism—along with his nationalism and racism—is his entire governing philosophy.
Even if Trump were a master strategist or ruthless ideologue, the US constitution would probably withstand his attacks on press freedom. But there’s little the constitution can do if a madman with a gun decides to avenge the people’s “enemy”. Trump’s rhetoric incites violence against journalists, whether it’s mail bombs addressed to CNN or a Montana congressman assaulting a Guardian reporter.
Trump’s attacks on the media also have a global impact. America used to defend free speech; now whenever a tyrant introduces repressive laws against ‘fake news’, aka ‘news the dictator doesn’t like’, they know they’ve got a pal in the White House. As Columbia University journalism professor Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker, “When the leader of a nation previously devoted to the promulgation of press freedom worldwide seeks so colorfully to delegitimize journalism, he inevitably gives cover to foreign despots who threaten reporters in order to protect their own power.”
The publisher of the New York Times, AG Sulzberger Jr, recently confronted Trump with these concerns. The president’s predictable response was to focus on his own personal grievances. When asked about the role of a free press, Trump said that its job was to be fair, but the president’s idea of fair, the paper wryly noted, was “almost always in line with what he considers flattering.”
At the end of the meeting, Trump made a plea to Sulzberger Jr. “I came from Jamaica, Queens, and became president of the United States. I’m sort of entitled to a great story—just one—from my newspaper.”
His newspaper. See, he doesn’t hate the free press. He just hates not being loved by it. It doesn’t bode well for press freedom in countries where it’s needed the most.
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