Beneath the madness and the lies of The Year of Trump there remains a constant drumbeat, unyielding and determined. It broke cover on Jan. 22, 2017 when Kellyanne Conway introduced the term “alternative facts.”
The abasement of language by Donald Trump and his assorted flacks began long before, but this concept was so naked, so novel and so unblinkingly forthright that it established the rules for the assault to come, just as the first salvo of an artillery barrage signals the creation of a new battlefield where there will be many casualties.
And let’s face it, the English language has taken a real pounding since then. Lies have poured forth from the White House at an astonishing rate: The Washington Post estimated that in Trump’s first 355 days he made more than 2,000 false or misleading claims, averaging five a day.
Trump has spent two years vilifying the “dishonest” media (including The Daily Beast), even invoking the Nazi chant of “enemies of the people.” Aided by the alt right zealots at Breitbart, he has successfully persuaded millions of Americans that The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC are seditious forces bent on denigrating and destroying the man they elected.
It is dismaying that it was so easy for him to do this, dismaying that independent journalism of quality is so easily discredited and dismaying that none of this seems to trouble the Republican Party.
And let’s be clear: The protection of independent journalism isn’t something that a lot of politicians—or a good number of the population—really care about. Yet, in the end, it has really been a strong year for journalism. In particular, two papers, The New York Times and Washington Post, have re-established themselves as bulwarks against abuses of power, as they were at the time of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Why have these two newspapers in particular once more demonstrated the best of American journalism? It’s partly luck. The Post was basically saved by Jeff Bezos whose deep pockets have restored the resources of the newsroom. Under the editorship of Marty Baron they were positioned to seize the Trump moment and rediscovered the art of investigative reporting. Similarly the Times passed through a period in which it struggled to find a new business model for the digital age and eventually found it, enabling its Washington newsroom to become competitive again.
This underlines the fragile dependency of journalism on enlightened patronage—on who owns a newspaper and particularly who owns the two papers that are regarded as national in prestige and potency together with the editorial independence and authority that that position requires. For all its fine reporting over the last year The Wall Street Journal does not have that kind of reputational backbone because it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, blatantly a Trump stooge.
But the battle is not yet won, and will not be without eternal vigilance. To realize the gravity of where we are now we need more context than is provided by recent history, we need to look at the history of Italy in the 1920s and Germany in the 1930s. In both nations tyrants arose who on the way to seizing power found it remarkably easy to denigrate and destroy independent journalism.
In Italy, Benito Mussolini came to power in October 1922. At the age of 39 he was the youngest ever prime minister, charismatic and full of energy. He was also careful to move slowly as, almost by stealth, he built a new illiberal state. In a country that for years had lacked unity he proposed a new focus for nationalism: himself. He was Italy. He described a parliament made impotent by its own factionalism “a gathering of old fossils.” Parliament’s powers and the rights of a free press were stripped away.
“The people,” Mussolini said in July 1924, “on the innumerable occasions when I have spoken with them close at hand have never asked me to free them from a tyranny which they do not feel because it does not exist. They have asked me for railways, houses, drains, bridges, water, light and roads.” In that year the fascists won more than 65 percent of the vote in national elections.
Mussolini’s absolute hold on power was made clear on Jan. 3, 1925, when he said: “I and I alone assume the political, moral and historic responsibility for everything that has happened. Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible and with force if necessary.”
As the editor, successively, of two newspapers in Milan and with a talent for populist polemic Mussolini had skillfully used the press for his own ends. Now he made sure nobody else would follow his example. Within a few years most of Italy’s newspapers were suppressed or put under party control. Some smaller newspapers claiming to be independent were still tolerated to give the appearance of freedom of opinion but they were a fig leaf to cover the end of press freedom. Without any effective challenge Mussolini’s megalomania flourished. The crowds who gathered for his speeches cried “Duce, Duce, Duce! We are yours to the end.”
None of the ministers, officials and party secretaries around him were safe from his caprice. He was always right and anyone who contradicted him was fired. Mussolini was, simultaneously, prime minister, foreign minister, minister of the interior, commander in chief of the militia, and minister for the whole military, army, navy, and air force.
These flagrant excesses of the founder of European fascism were later to seem buffoonish against the cold-blooded terror machine that Adolf Hitler built, just as rapidly, in Germany. But there was nothing comical about the 1920s for Italians: they had succumbed very readily to a maniac, and a maniac who understood that the state should control all propaganda (which is, after all, an Italian word) down to details such as decreeing that the national tennis team should wear black shirts.
In Germany the man who would go down in history as the evil genius of alternative facts, Joseph Goebbels, was appointed Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda on March 14, 1933—little more than a month after Hitler came to power in Berlin.
Goebbels said he wanted a ministry that was “National Socialist [Nazi] by birth.”
To staff it he was smart enough to tap into one of the most corrosive influences on the national mood at the time: a grudge, widely held, that Germany’s descent into economic chaos had left many of the country’s best educated young people out of well-paid government jobs. From this group Goebbels recruited party zealots who were notably younger and smarter than other Nazi officials—he specified that he wanted those who displayed “ardor, enthusiasm, untarnished idealism.” (Watching the instant classic encounter between CNN’s Jake Tapper and Trump’s senior adviser for policy, Stephen Miller, suggests that Miller would have been a perfect recruit.)
Goebbels’ priority was to exert immediate control of the press—the press, he instructed his staff, had to be “a piano, so to speak, in the hands of the government.” Germany’s newspapers had been “messengers of decay” that were harmful to the “beliefs, customs and national pride of good Germans.”
Within a year all of Goebbels’ goals were achieved. Three previously independent news services were merged into one state-directed national news agency, the German News Service. All journalism was subjected to the policy of Gleichschaltung—meaning that they had to toe the party line on all issues.
Previously newspaper publishers had been the legal entity responsible for everything that was published. Goebbels issued the Editor Statute that made editors equally accountable and any editor who resisted Gleichschaltung could be removed and, if particularly recalcitrant, would be sent to a concentration camp.
However, as had Mussolini, Goebbels recognized that the German press should be left with a fig leaf of apparent independence. One great liberal newspaper that happened to have an international following, the Frankfurter Zeitung, was allowed to remain publishing until 1943. Its editors grew expert at a kind of coded reporting with a semblance of neutrality that allowed experienced readers to sense what was really going on.
Two new and growingly important news outlets, radio and cinema newsreels, were put totally under Goebbels’ control: “We make no bones about it,” he said, “the radio belongs to us, to no one else! And we will place the radio at the service of our idea, and no other idea shall be expressed through it.”
The collapse of media independence was rapid and complete. But, as with all historical comparisons, this one can be pushed either too far or too little. Plainly America in 2018 is not the Europe of the 1930s and liberal paranoia in itself is not a sound basis for assessing just how dangerous an assault on journalism may turn out to be.
In 1933 Hitler was at the threshold of creating the instruments of a terror state. We are nowhere near that point. But what is striking now is how friendless the press was. Nobody fought the Goebbels takeover. Mussolini had identified and seized the same opportunity, finding it easy to issue edicts that closed down critical newspapers on the grounds of “sedition.”
This might seem astonishing in a country like Germany that had one of Europe’s most deeply rooted intelligentsias. But the universities were quiescent, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and the barons of industry were all tired of the Weimar Republic’s violent polarization between the fascists and the communists and for them press freedom was secondary to personal interests like jobs and, for the industrialists, to the fortunes to be made from re-armament.
Of course Trump has little if any grasp of European history and probably only the vaguest idea of who Goebbels was but his use of tweets reflects one of Goebbels’ basic tenets about propaganda: “Berlin needs sensations as a fish needs water. Any political propaganda that fails to recognize that will miss its target.”
So it happens that when it comes to news management Trump has pulled off something that Goebbels would applaud. He has made himself the Great Dictator of the news cycle. To do this he didn’t need to knowingly emulate anyone in the propaganda arts because he is directed by his two dominant personal traits: narcissism and paranoia.
Almost every event is refracted through his own response to it, its media lifespan no longer than can be held in his own gnat-like attention span. His tweets are so bizarre, unhinged and frequent that they effectively confuse and distract much of the competing daily coverage. What seems aberrant at 6 p.m. suddenly seems the new normal by 7 p.m. (As Ron Rosenbaum powerfully demonstrates writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, getting people to readily accept the aberrant as normal was one of Hitler’s most effective early tactics.)
And when Trump faces a news narrative that he can’t derail, like the Mueller investigation, he sees it as a violation of his own powers, as he imagines them to be rather than as they really exist under the constitution.
Mussolini, very early in his rule, did the same thing, equating himself with the nation and regarding any insult to him as an insult to Italy. In Trump’s mind it his base that exclusively represents the nation—a belief constantly reinforced by Fox News for whom that base is a ratings gold mine. Trump and his lackeys on Fox have succeeded in equating respect for the kind of truth-telling that is built on learning and the ability to marshal facts with a simple demographic: it’s the exclusive province of metropolitan elites.
This tactic is based, at least in part, on a condition described by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist. He calls it “cognitive ease” in which humans tend to avoid facts that are uncomfortable or require work to understand.
Goebbels understood that the reinforcement of prejudice was an intoxicating weapon of propaganda. Fed the right message, aggrieved and resentful minorities could be made to coalesce into a critical mass of activists. The Trump base has been built on this principle, and feels grateful to be led by such a man with whom they readily identify, even though his real interests (personal enrichment) are the opposite of theirs.
But perhaps the weirdest side of Trump’s perception of his role and office is that in his mind his fate and that of the mainstream media are locked together in a life or death embrace. This is new. No demagogue in recent history has seen the effectiveness of his role being interdependent with a force that for most of the time he purports to despise.
Consider how he framed this belief when Michael Schmidt of The New York Times recorded one of the most bizarre interviews with him in the Grill Room of his West Palm Beach golf club during the holidays:
“We’re going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we’re being respected again. But another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually probably six months before the election they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.’”
Most of the rest of that interview was delusional drivel that provided an alarming insight into his mental processes—in fact, it served as a kind of impromptu warm-up for the revelations of Michael Wolff’s book, a kind of journalistic bomb cyclone.
What Wolff delivered between the covers of a book was an explosive concentration of reporting that isn’t achievable through the daily news cycle. His method is really no different than that used by Bob Woodward in his books, notably on the origins of the Iraq war, where whole scenes are reconstructed with dialog without attribution, but carry the ring of authenticity. The difference in public impact is that Woodward was reporting after the event whereas Wolff delivers as, so to speak, the crime is still in progress.
Some sniffy journalists, David Brooks surprisingly among them, have complained that Wolff doesn’t operate according to their understanding of journalistic standards. Well, for one thing he doesn’t have the resources of a paper to support him. And he also demonstrates another vital point about the scope of journalism: sometimes the force of one is equal to the force of hundreds. At this moment we need both kinds of consequential reporting, the collective effort of a newsroom and the disruptive brilliance of the loner.
Calling out the lies hasn’t stopped Trump. His motives may differ from those of Mussolini and Hitler. He’s not ideological. In his case autocratic instincts come as a psychological motor in the pursuit of greed and the protection of his unbridled and ludicrous ego. The lack of ideology doesn’t make him any less dangerous, though.
Trump has no time for scruples. With his lawyers unable to kill Wolff’s book (can book burning be far off in his mind?) he once again threatened to ramp up the libel laws to prevent the “defamation” of people like him. He’s trying to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner in the hope that Time Warner will be forced to divest itself of his bête noir, CNN, hoping that someone more sympathetic to him will take it over, although Rupert Murdoch, the obvious candidate, says he’s not interested, and he has been clearly looking for ways to punish Jeff Bezos for his re-arming of The Washington Post in changes to the tax code that would hit Amazon.
All this should be very alarming, but Trump is operating in a worryingly permissive arena. There isn’t, it seems, a stable public standard of truth in today’s America. This is a culture where scientific truths are dismissed if inconvenient and ignorance is nourished. (Forty-three percent of Republicans believe that climate change is not happening.) One of the foundations of secular Western polities is that truth can be sustained only by honesty in language, that language must be used to interrogate information critically, no matter what its source.
In this struggle journalism is our last dependable line of defense. It’s no exaggeration to say that the health, security, and integrity of the republic is at stake. History is an unforgiving judge and, just as the history of Europe in the 1920s and ’30s reveals shameful failures in democratic institutions America’s current crisis will be judged by how effectively, or otherwise, the institutions designed to protect democracy worked.
No institution can achieve this without being able to operate on a generally agreed foundation of facts, of which the single most consequential fact is that the president is patently unfit for office. The second is that he is being kept in office by the obsequious Republican leadership who remain supine even after the outrage of the “shithole” outburst.
Principal among these are toadies like Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who, rather than pursue the investigation of Trump would rather pursue the whistleblower, the British former spy Christopher Steele. Other Republicans are calling for Mueller’s investigation to be “purged”—using a term that Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin all employed to protect themselves. Then there is Ayn Rand’s posthumous wrecking ball, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who delivered a groveling encomium when Trump signed the so-called tax reform bill, thanking him for “exquisite presidential leadership.”
There is a word for people like these. It’s a word that needs to be revived from earlier use: Quisling. It was first used as a general pejorative early in 1933 as Hitler came to power, identifying a Norwegian fascist named Vidkun Quisling who modeled his party on the Nazis and, when the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, urged collaboration with them.
As is so often the case it was Winston Churchill who gave it a permanent meaning when, in 1941, he said: “A vile race of Quislings—to use a new word which will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries—is hired to fawn upon the conqueror, to collaborate in his designs and to enforce his rule upon their fellow countrymen while groveling low themselves.”