Seriously and literally listening to Trump

Published 11:27 am Friday, February 24, 2017

By John Micek

During last year’s presidential campaign, my old friend and colleague Salena Zito, writing in The Atlantic, made national headlines when she observed that the reporters covering then-candidate Donald Trump “[took] him literally, but not seriously,” while supporters took him “seriously, but not literally.”

Now that President Trump has called the news media “the enemy of the American people,” is it time to take the former reality TV star both seriously and literally?

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Trump’s words — delivered last week via his favored medium, Twitter, were not the words of a duly elected leader of the world’s strongest and most enduring democracy.

They were those of a strongman with little regard, or even knowledge, of the norms of a liberal democracy. And they came on the heels of Trump’s frankly surreal, 77-minute, tongue-lashing of the press last Thursday.

It was a performance that staggered the imagination. For more than an hour and fifteen minutes, Trump scolded reporters he didn’t like and heaped praise on those he did.

It was followed up by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus making the rounds of the Sunday chat shows, where he doubled-down on the boss’s message.

It earned him a stiff rebuke from “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, who reminded Priebus of what should been long past obvious for the former Republican National Committee boss: Re-porters don’t work for the White House.

No president ever really gets along with the reporters who cover him. President Barack Obama’s disdain for the Washington press corps was well-known.

President Nixon privately referred to the press as the enemy – but was apparently smart enough not to make such remarks in public, former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein told CNN over the weekend.

But still, Trump’s remarks were understandable when viewed in the context of the Hollywood culture in which he is most at home.

In the world of the soft-touch celebrity profile, it’s not uncommon for celebs and their representatives to get a say over the time, place, setting, questions and even the final, published copy.

Trump, who benefited for years from his close relationship with the New York tabs and the celebrity press, has probably come to accept largely gushing coverage and the kid-gloves treatment as the norm, not the bizarre exception that it truly is.

The frankly aggressive and adversarial coverage Trump has received from the political press runs counter to the cosseted bubble that the president has called home for the roughly five decades he’s been in the public eye.

The leaks coming out of the White House and other areas of government — while a standard and badly needed feature of public affairs reporting — offend him to the core when viewed in that context.

An ego that bruises at the drop of a hat and a constant — and perhaps pathological — need for affirmation doesn’t help either.

But while that explains Trump’s skewed view on the treatment he thinks he should be receiving, it doesn’t excuse it. Not by a longshot.

Nor does it excuse the blatant falsehoods, distortions and fabrications that have been emanating from his White House from Day One.

Writing in the New Yorker last week, the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, placed Trump in a line of authoritarian leaders, from Robespierre and Vladimir Lenin to Sisi and Mugabe on down, who branded their adversaries “enemies of the people,” and used it scant justification to imprison them or send them to their deaths.

So far, Trump hasn’t gone that far — at least.

Now I’m not going to sit here and claim that journalists are without sin. Mistakes happen and there have unquestionably been times when we’ve been our own worst enemy.

Trump, who is likely ignorant of the historical antecedents of his remarks (though White House adviser Steve Bannon surely is not) has played on that distrust and used it to his advantage. Polls showing lagging Congress in public trust are the unfortunate result.

Journalists, meanwhile, have to be careful not to play into Trump’s hands. They have to continue to hold him accountable without morphing into the “opposition party” the administration claims them to be.

After all, no one ever said being an enemy of the state was going to be easy.

John Micek is a syndicated columnist.