Self-absorbed and irrational Donald Trump may well be, but on Thursday he held what was probably the most interesting and entertaining White House press conference ever. These are usually grimly ritualistic events in which select members of the media establishment, who have often come to see themselves as part of the permanent government of the US, ask predictable questions and get equally predictable replies.
The conventions of democracy are preserved but nobody is much the wiser, and the general tone is one of fawning credulity towards whatever line the administration is adopting. That this has long been the case was shown in the fascinating book about the press coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, which notes that negative popular perceptions of the media truckling to power is largely true of the White House correspondents, though not of other reporters.
For now, Trump reminds one more of a theatrical populist like Silvio Berlusconi than anything resembling a proto-fascist or authoritarian demagogue like Benito Mussolini. This perception may change as he secures his grip on the levers of power as he promises to do, blaming leaks from the US intelligence services on holdovers from the Obama administration.
But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media. This was the trajectory in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding a referendum in April which will establish an all-powerful presidency. In the run-up to the vote the Turkish media simply reports military failures in Syria as brilliant successes and even mildly critical tweets can lead to the tweeter being sacked or imprisoned. Press freedoms may never be extinguished to the same degree in the US, but then many Turkish journalists did not foresee what was going to happen to them.
At present, this is a golden era in American journalism, because established media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post find themselves under unprecedented and open attacks from the powers that be. Richard Nixon may have felt persecuted by press and television, but he never counter-attacked with the same vigour and venom as Trump. Discussions on CNN, which used to be notoriously soporific, have suddenly become lively and intelligent, and the same is true of the rest of the mainline media.
This radicalisation of the establishment media may not last and is accompanied by a significant rearrangement of history. Lying by the Trump administration is presented as wholly unprecedented, but what has really changed is the position of the media itself, forgetful of its past complicity in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that war in Libya would bring peace and democracy to that country.
“Fake news” and “false facts” are the battle cries in this ferocious struggle for power in Washington in which each side takes a high moral tone, while trying to land any low blow they think they can get away with. Trump, accused of everything aside from grave-robbing, is said to have been aided by the dark hand of Vladimir Putin in winning the election, in a manner that is far beyond Russian capabilities. The Kremlin is credited with demonic foresight whereby it sponsored Trump as a candidate in the presidential election long before any American politician or commentator thought he had a chance.
A bizarre feature of the present confrontation is that the Democrats and liberals have relaunched McCarthyism, something they would have decried as a toxic episode in American political history until a few months ago. Just as Senator Joe McCarthy claimed in 1950 to have a list of communist infiltrators in the State Department, so any contact between a Trump supporter or official and a Russian is now being reported as suspicious and potentially treacherous. It is difficult to see where Trump is wrong when he tweeted that “the Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly, so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”
Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis. Paradoxically, she was blamed for one of the few bad things that happened in Libya that was not her fault. In recent decades it has been the Republicans who have made a speciality in promoting trivial offences or no offence at all into major issues in order to discredit political opponents. In the 1990s they succeeded in smearing the Clintons by elevating a minor unsuccessful real estate deal into the Whitewater scandal. Probably the biggest Democratic Party “false fact” success came in the Presidential election in 1960 when Kennedy claimed that the Republicans had allowed “a missile gap” to develop between the US and the Soviet Union, though he knew this was untrue since he had been officially briefed that the US had far more missiles than the Russians.
The phrases “fake news” and “false facts” give a misleading impression of what really happens in the course of political combat now or in the past. A direct disprovable lie, like Kennedy on the missile gap, is unusual. More frequent is systematic exaggeration of the gravity of real events such as Clinton’s emails or Trump’s Russian connections.
Sound advice on this was given 300 years ago in Dr John Arbuthnot’s wonderful treatise on “the Art of Political Lying”, published in 1712, which warns that once a false fact or lie is lodged in the public mind, it may be impossible to persuade people that it is untrue except by another lie. He says, as an example, that if there is a rumour that the pretender to the British throne in exile in France has come to London, do not contradict it by saying he was never in England. Rather “you must prove by eyewitnesses that he came no farther than Greenwich, but then went back again.” He warns against spreading lies about a political leader which are directly contrary to their known character and previous behaviour. Better to give credibility to a lie by keeping within realms of credibility, by blackening the name of a prince known to be merciful “that he has pardoned a criminal who did not deserve it.”
Arbuthnot assumes that political parties lie as a matter of course, and that the only way for the public to limit the power of governments is to lie as much as they do. He says that, just as ministers use political lying to support their power, “it is but reasonable that the people should employ the same weapon to defend themselves, and pull them down.”
Could this be the fate of Trump? He became president because false facts fatally damaged Hillary Clinton – and now the same thing is happening to him.