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.
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.
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.
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 warns against spreading lies about a political leader which are directly contrary to their known character and previous behaviour.
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.
This article has been excerpted from ‘Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death’.