For a few hours after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, it seemed as though he was committed to playing the role of a statesman.
But by Thursday night, the old Trump was gnawing himself free to lance an old enemy: the media—an ominous development for a country whose freedom depends, in large part, on a free press.
From the moment he walked out onto the balcony at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in the early hours on Wednesday, after he won the general election, Trump seemed calmer, less erratic, and less emotional than at any point over his 17-month long campaign for the presidency.
He’d finally made that presidential “pivot,” in other words, that he failed to make as a candidate.
He gave a subdued speech, and he spoke graciously of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, whom he’d been threatening to imprison for the previous year. Then he appeared at the White House and sat with President Obama, whose American citizenship he’d questioned for five years, and he spoke graciously of him, too.
But then on Twitter, he fell back into his old habit of undermining the credibility of the press and falsely ascribing it a political agenda. “Just had a very open and successful presidential election,” he tweeted at 9:19 p.m., “Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
The statement is a worrying confirmation that Trump, even with his new hushed voice and presidential handshakes, is the same as he’s always been. Surely, much of what he promised he’d do as a candidate will not be executable, even with both chambers of Congress in his control and the support of roughly half of the American people. But we shouldn’t believe for a moment that he doesn’t still want to do precisely what he’s said.
The Trump campaign was no act. The last 48 hours, however, have been.
The president-elect has had a fair election and a peaceful transition of power, two necessary features of a first-world democracy like the United States. But make no mistake: There can be no unifying a country when you dismiss its citizens’ protests as a media conspiracy executed by crisis actors. And there can be no keeping a republic when you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a free press.