The Enemy of the People. Donald Trump cannot have come up with his dark, demonizing tweet on his own: The FAKE NEWS media… is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People. Perhaps to him they are just more words — just another in a long line of attacks on individuals and institutions that do not serve his interests — and no doubt he would deny any historic significance to those particular words.
It is what Trump does; he lashes out with inflammatory rhetoric that fires up the base, and coyly denies whatever meaning others might read into his words. He is not a religious bigot; he just says things that play into religious bigotry. He is not a racist; he just happens to say things that racists cheer on…
Trump may take pride in his lack of historical perspective, but not so his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Bannon — who reportedly penned much of Trump’s dark inauguration address — is an intellectual and self-described Leninist, whose political philosophy is deeply rooted in history. Unlike Trump, Bannon must have relished the allusions to the French revolutionary leader Robespierre — who coined the phrase in 1793 when he declared that his government “owed nothing to the enemies of the people but death” — and to Vladimir Lenin, who tipped his hat to Robespierre on the brink of his own reign of terror in his essay “Enemies of the People,” published on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Bannon understands intellectually what Trump grasps intuitively, that their campaign — or their movement as Trump now prefers — requires an enemy. As the specter of Hillary Clinton slowly fades, she has been replaced by the media.
The reporting that raised Trump’s hackles are two articles published last week that gave credence to collaboration between the Russian FSB and the Trump presidential campaign. First, the New York Times reported that, according to law enforcement and intelligence sources, the Trump campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials over the months leading up to the election. Then, the next day, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence officials withheld information on intelligence sources and methods from the White House out of concern that the intelligence might be compromised. Both of these stories ultimately relate back to the Russia dossier compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele that purports to describe the inner workings of a Russian intelligence operation seeking to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, with the collaboration of Trump campaign officials and associates.
Trump and Bannon clearly understand the threat that the growing focus on the Russia story constitutes to Trump’s presidency. Trump began to push the fake news narrative at his first press conference as President-elect in direct response to the emergence of the Russia story on CNN and the publication of the dossier on Buzzfeed. His enemy of the people tweet escalated his effort to undermine the credibility of the media, which Trump and Bannon must view as critical to Trump’s ability to survive should significant elements of Steele’s dossier be verified and the suggested relationship with Putin and Russian intelligence become a threat to his presidency.
Bannon and Trump complete each other. Before Steve Bannon took over the leadership of Trump’s campaign, Trump had a softer, more malleable demeanor. In front of massive crowds of supporters, he enjoyed playing the populist tough guy; stoking the economic fears and resentments of his supporters, while demonizing one enemy or another — Muslims, Mexicans, Washington elites. Away from the crowds, he worked diligently to sustain his symbiotic relationship with the media that dated back literally decades to his New York playboy days — he gave them material, and they gave him the attention that he craved. In his frequent calls into radio talk shows, Trump was affable and — dare one say it — rational. It was all part of the reality show that had become his life.
That side of Donald Trump disappeared with the exit of Corey Lewandowski and the arrival Steve Bannon. As much as Lewandowski might have put some people off, he was fundamentally a moderate New Hampshire Republican whose mantra was “Let Trump be Trump.” Bannon arrived with a fundamentally different perspective. He found in Trump the perfect vehicle for his own dark vision of the country. At the same time, Trump found in Bannon a person who could perfectly articulate and focus the populist message that had up until then been a political act that grew out of his intuitive connection with his audience.
The affable side of Donald Trump is now long gone. Instead, we have watched the deepening mind meld, where Bannon’s philosophical stance and strategic vision has been merged with Trump’s deep need for self-aggrandizement. At the hastily planned “campaign event” in Florida this past weekend, Trump was back in his element, only more so, as he embraced the trappings of the presidency. When Air Force One finally arrived, Trump paused briefly with Melania at the top of the stairs and, at the proper moment, began to descend the steps as the Battle Hymn of the Republic played: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…” As blasphemous as it might be, the intention was clear to the gathered masses. If not the Lord, at least the savior had arrived.
Donald Trump was in full demagogue mode. As parroted by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the Sunday morning shows the next day, Trump wrapped his latest attack on the media in the traditions of our greatest presidents, as he described how Lincoln, Jefferson and Adams had each fought with the press. At the Florida rally, Trump quoted Thomas Jefferson. “Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself, becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
The irony of Trump’s quote was remarkable. Thomas Jefferson — as Bannon surely understood — was a staunch believer in the free press. The particular quote came at a moment toward the end of his presidency when the press was exposing Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave whom historians believe bore him six children. Trump, therefore, was citing an attack on the press by Jefferson in a specific circumstance where the story at issue was correct, while then-President Jefferson — fully knowing that the press reports were correct — was claiming otherwise. This may well mirror the current circumstance, as Trump may have launched his most vociferous attack yet on the media knowing full well — as Thomas Jefferson did — that the substance of the issues raised by articles in question are true.
As I watched Reince Priebus on Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday, I was unnerved by his vociferous attacks on the NYT and WSJ, and began to question whether those stories were as well sourced as I wanted to presume they were. Priebus was not questioning elements of the stories or their sourcing, rather he asserted outright that the stories were made up out of whole cloth, and — it is worth noting — described “treasonous” behavior by Trump campaign officials. I found myself torn between my inherent trust in the reporting of those two publications, and how difficult it was for me to believe — despite watching the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran Contra, and myriad other scandals unfold over the years — that an official of Priebus’ stature would lie outright, without hedging his assertions. Creating that doubt, I quickly realized, was the essence of the administration’s strategy. Trump and Bannon know exactly what they are doing; labeling the media the enemy of the people is a significant step with dangerous historical precedents.
The Russia story underpins much of what has been transpiring. Perhaps there is nothing there, as Trump and the Kremlin keep telling us, but neither Trump nor Putin enjoys a high level of credibility outside of their own base of supporters. For his part, Donald Trump has trafficked in lies and fake news for so long that he will be hard pressed to get the benefit of the doubt. That is why his only option is to do whatever he can to make sure that the credibility of the media is lower than his own. But try as he might, he cannot elude the question that keeps gnawing at people who are paying attention to this story: If there is nothing there, why do so many of the people involved — Donald Trump first and foremost among them — continue to act as though they have something to hide.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.