When a president, or anyone for that matter, does something that no president has ever done before, there are usually two possibilities: First, that the individual in question has come up with a brilliant idea never before considered by his predecessors, or two, that he has come up with a bad idea, never adopted by those who came before because it was dumb, or worse, dangerous.

The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue breaks new ground in presidential history fairly regularly. He has, in a very important area of presidential behavior, in two very troubling areas. First, he seems to have adopted a view of the truth that is the very antithesis of at least the legend of our first president regarding a certain cherry tree. Secondly, he seems intent on reducing the public’s trust in, and support of, a free press.

First, let’s consider Truthiness.[1] While the specific tree-chopping story is apocryphal, there is considerable evidence that Mr. Washington did value truth telling quite highly.   And through our history, there have been ebbs and flows of honesty within the White House. I argue that mostly we’ve had honorable and trustworthy presidents, from a variety of political parties. We’ve had honest Federalists and Whigs, and we’ve had truthful Republicans and Democrats. And we’ve had presidents that failed to behave with honesty and honor as well. We had Mr. Nixon attempt to hold onto power through a variety of illegal means, and we had Mr. Jackson oversee a pattern of governmental genocide-lite against the native peoples of his time.

We’ve had brilliant presidents (Mr. Madison, Mr. Jefferson, and Mr. Pierce) and we’ve elected men of less gravitas (Mr. Harding). We’ve seen presidents who deftly twist and warp the powers of the office, sometimes to save the nation (Mr. Lincoln) and those seemingly paralyzed by the complexity of the Oval Office (Mr. Carter). We’ve seen honest presidents and less honest ones. But until the election of 2016, we never elected a man who seems simultaneously ignorant of the complexities of policies, who is also proud of that information deficient, while maintaining only the most tenuous of connections with the actual facts of the situation. So, is Mr. Trump simply smarter, more insightful, more clever than all those in office before him? Or is he a danger to the very liberty he purports to protect?   I think the evidence suggests that latter, especially in two areas.

Last July, the New York Times ran a very interesting article simply titled “Trump’s Lies.”[2] In today’s politics, few words strike up more instant support or animus than “The New York Times.” But I would ask even the most hostile opponent of the Times to consider reading the article, carefully. The Times documents, with specific sources, each of the lies told by our president, up until the date the article appeared. Some of these lies seem trivial (taking credit for cost savings on the F-35 that were planned long before he took office) to far more troubling statements (Climate change is a hoax from China, then flatly stating he never said it. Tweets, however, live forever). It is difficult to find a pattern within this web of falsehood, unless one keeps in mind what appears to be first and foremost in Mr. Trump’s mind – Mr. Trump. The lies generally seem tied to making him look better and appear smarter. Future analysts will find fertile areas of research, but for us in 2017, we seem to have a POTUS uncaring about the truth, and all too many supporters who seem oddly unconcerned about a dishonest chief executive.[3]  All this is very troubling, but it is not the most troubling thing Mr. Trump has said.

Far worse, and far more dangerous, was his tweet dated February 17th, wherein he stated that the “FAKE NEWS media [which he then listed as the NY Times, CNN and NBC and “many more”] is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!”

This may be the most troubling thing every to come from a president. Let’s be clear – every president from Washington to Obama has hated the press at times, and has railed against what was seen as an unfair media. That is normal. But no other president has ever declared the concept of the media – as embodied within a few standard-bearers – as the “enemy” of the people. Even Mr. Lincoln, at the nadir of the Civil War, when actively restricting some newspapers’ ability to publish, never declared the media as the enemy.

Think about why this is so dangerous an idea in a president.  He is declaring, with all the weight of the bully pulpit, that he is the safe source for real information, and that the media are not only wrong (as many presidents have believed) but is our true national enemy (a view uniquely Trumpian). And for my friends on the farther right side of the aisle, for whom this criticism seems at least somewhat reasonable, answer me this – If Mr. Obama had declared Fox News to be the enemy of the American people, in language usually reserved for rival nations and unfriendly foreign governments, would you rally to his side?

When I taught the Constitution to my students at the Air Force Academy, I preached a gospel of First Amendment freedom – that we as military officers were first and foremost the defenders of the Constitution. I reminded them that they never took an oath to the president, but rather to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And that includes an amendment committed to ensuring a free press. The Founders were most certainly not creating an enemy of the people; rather they were establishing a Fourth Estate capable of standing up to tyrants and fools.

I don’t think we’ve been this divided as a nation since roughly 1850. In that long ago time, those that disagreed with you were not simply wrong, but they were declared to be un-American. I would ask the gentle reader to consider how well that period of political turmoil turned out, and to ponder, whether a leader who says to trust only him, and no other source, is likely to be the new Cincinnatus or whether he is more likely a wanna-be Caesar.

This Column first appeared on ColoradoPolitics.com

Image: THE LIBERTY OF THE PRESS by Charles F. Partington 1836


 

[1] With appropriate props to Mr. Colbert

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/23/opinion/trumps-lies.html

[3] And before you counter with “they all do it” let me say this. First off, they don’t. Gerald Ford didn’t lie, nor did Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan (like all of us) misstated things, but there is no evidence of a broad pattern of deceit. And Barack Obama was many things to many people, but he was not a serial fibber. And  more importantly, is that really the defense you want to put up for Mr. Trump? He’s a liar, but so are other people? Shouldn’t we have a higher standard in our presidents?

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