The following e-newsletter by Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post was mailed February 21, 2017:
President Trump’s speech over the weekend along Florida’s Space Coast — effectively a campaign rally staged just one month into his term — served, more than anything else, as an illustration of the extent of the political polarization now gripping the United States.
Trump had already declared open war on his country’s media, describing the mainstream press as the “enemy” of the American people. The 9,000-strong crowd of supporters seemed to agree.
“It was hilarious to see him give it to the media,” said Tony Lopez, 28, a car dealer from Orlando who spoke to my colleagues covering the event. “The media’s problem is that they keep wanting to make up stories so that he looks bad. It doesn’t work. He’s talking right through you guys.”
Since Trump entered the White House, he has lashed out at supposedly negative stories about his presidency as “fake news.” Many of his supporters, who largely subscribe to a steady diet of right-wing talk radio, television and websites, share this assessment.
“If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work,” said Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. She was referring to a bill Trump approved on Thursday that scrapped an Obama-era regulation preventing mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. “I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were.”
Such was her view. Here was the reality: “The regulation actually would have cost relatively few mining jobs,” my colleagues explained, “and would have created nearly as many new jobs on the regulatory side, according to a government report — an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.”
In other words, the rallygoers were the perfect audience for the president, who has continued his campaign habit of insisting his version of reality is the only one that exists or matters.
Behold some of the problematic falsehoods circulated by Trump just this weekend, from his fear-mongering over immigrant criminals in Sweden to his insistence that he inherited “a mess” in January. (A cursory glance at the numbers reveals that the Obama administration bequeathed Trump a far rosier picture than what it inherited eight years ago. On Sweden, read my colleague Rick Noack below.)
Some American conservatives mock their counterparts on the left, particularly student activists at the country’s liberal colleges, for clinging to their “safe spaces” — that is, avoiding conflicting opinions and refusing to tolerate the views of those who don’t share their outlook.
But Trump is now the one groping for a safe space. His incessant derision of journalists and his apparent desire to hide behind campaign theatrics are both symptoms of his divisive brand of ultra-nationalist populism. They are also possibly a coping mechanism for a president already buffeted by intrigue, scandal and allegations of incompetence just a month into his tenure.
As a result, Carl Bernstein, the veteran Washington Post reporter who helped break the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration, sees the nation facing an unprecedented crisis.
“Trump’s attacks on the American press as ‘enemies of the American people’ are more treacherous than Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press,” he told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday. That’s because the polarization of the present finds no real equivalent in Nixon’s America.
“There is no civic consensus in this country like there was at the time of Watergate about acceptable presidential conduct,” said Bernstein. “Trump is out there on his own, leading a demagogic attack on the institutions of free democracy. We are into terrible authoritarian tendencies.”
Bernstein is hardly alone. On Monday, Ned Price, a former CIA officer who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, explained why he had recently quit his post: He sees Trump operating in a dangerous ideological bubble.
Trump’s administration “has little need for intelligence professionals who, in speaking truth to power, might challenge the so-called ‘America First’ orthodoxy that sees Russia as an ally and Australia as a punching bag,” Price wrote in The Washington Post. “That’s why the president’s trusted White House advisers, not career professionals, reportedly have final say over what intelligence reaches his desk.“
Timothy Snyder, the acclaimed scholar of 20th century history at Yale University, offered a gloomy analysis last week of Trump’s political style.
Trump “doesn’t seem to care about the institutions and the laws except insofar as they appear as barriers to the goal of permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism and immediate personal gratification,” said Snyder in an interview with German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. “It is all about him all of time, it is not about the citizens and our political traditions.”
He ended with a stark warning: “We have at most a year to defend the Republic, perhaps less.”