By William H. Freivogel
Most respondents — 46-37 percent — think “major news organizations fabricate” stories about President Donald Trump, a Politico-Morning Consult poll found this week.
The disheartening result brings to mind the saying, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” Nearly every week Trump repeats his lie about the “failing New York Times” and “Amazon Washington Post” publishing “Fake news,” even as those news organizations report devastating details of chaos within the Trump White House.
Trump’s attack on the media is central to his aberrant presidency. Trump recently threatened the broadcast licenses of networks airing “false” stories, after earlier calling the media the “enemy of the American people” and advocating weaker legal protections for the press in libel cases.
His attempt to weaken the press, one of the constitutional checks on his power, is part of a broad assault on the core values that hold Americans together.
Decency, civility, human rights, freedom, equality, the dynamism of a nation of immigrants, the strength of a people overcoming petty differences of race, religion and ethnicity.
Pointed critiques from Republicans — Sens. Jeff Flake, Ariz., Bob Corker, Tenn., John McCain, Ariz., Ben Sasse, Neb., former Sen. John Danforth, Mo. and former President George W. Bush — zero in on Trump’s threat to common understandings about what it is to be an American and America’s place in the world.
In what may be the most extraordinary of the extraordinary critiques of this extraordinarily damaging presidency, Flake criticized the “reckless, outrageous, undignified” behavior of the president who shall not be named. He said:
We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.
None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal.
The recent run of eloquent Republican critiques began with, McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, at a speech this month upon receiving the Liberty Medal. He said:
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Then the last Republican president, George W. Bush, broadened the criticism saying, “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication…. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.
“Our identity as a nation – unlike many other nations – is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.… This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”
On the same day Bush spoke, former President Barack Obama made some of the same points. “Some of the politics we see now, we thought we had put that to bed,” he said. “That’s folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st Century, not the 19th Century…We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry — to demonize people who have different ideas….”
None of these criticisms is “fake” news.
Nor can they be written off as politics as usual. Not in our lifetimes have so many leaders of the president’s party delivered such stinging criticism so early in a presidency. The closest comparisons are Democrats’ break with Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War in the months just before Johnson decided not to run for re-election and the Republicans’ abandonment of Richard M. Nixon just before he was forced to resign during Watergate.
Both historical analogies offer Trump scant comfort.
In fact, even though Trump was quick to tweet out the Politico-Morning Consult poll backing him over the media, the rest of the poll offered devastating news for the president. Majorities found Trump to be:
Racist, sexist, dishonest, untrustworthy, unreliable, thin-skinned, unstable, lacking in compassion and a weak leader.
Even if Americans think the national media are fabricating stories about Trump, the truth seems to be sinking in.
The most stirring line of Flake’s speech on the Senate floor speaks to America’s future.
“It is often said that children are watching,” he said. “Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ ‘Why didn’t you speak up?’
“…I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”