An 18th century parliamentarian well might have had Donald Trump in mind when he described a political opponent, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, as “blending mediocrity with cunning.”
Trump doubtless will spawn many such descriptions on his own; one legal scholar, for example, already has described his slap-dash travel ban as a “combination of malevolence and incompetence.”
Trump’s ongoing campaign against the news media is a signature example of his malevolent cunning. Beset with bad publicity—and historically low public approval ratings—because of his administration’s stunningly chaotic launch and growing suspicions over surreptitious Russian involvement in his election, Trump has scuttled to the refuge of two of his campaign’s cheapest rhetorical pillars—bashing the news media and persecuting immigrants. The mobs of the mindlessly alienated and angry who supported his candidacy will eat it up; the nation and the overwhelming majority of its people will suffer. Trump, incapable of distinguishing between television ratings and leadership, doubtless will bluster on—until his incremental but appalling failures congeal into full-blown disaster.
The right-wing Internet and talk radio, which sowed our national soil with the bitter seeds of wrath in preparation for something like Trumpism, have spent years undermining confidence in our non-partisan news organizations, profiting themselves in the process. Throughout his campaign, and to the delight of the disenchanted, Trump reviled the serious news media as biased and dishonest. His sinister senior strategist, Steve Bannon—architect of the once conservative Breitbart web site’s transformation into a platform for the odious ethno-nationalism of the alt-right—signaled the new administration’s continuance of that campaign when he used an early post-election interview to label the press corps as “the opposition party.”
The new chief executive doubled down on that idea in his now notorious 70-minute-plus news conference in which he denounced the media in general and insultingly abused individual reporters. Trump went even further over the next weekend, when he tweeted: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBC News, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
Friday, rhetoric took a far more thuggish turn, when the Times, Post, CNN and Los Angeles Times were excluded from a White House briefing that was opened only to sycophantic media outlets, like Breitbart, the Washington Times and One America Network. Suddenly, Washington is beginning to look more like Moscow, Ankara and Budapest—nationalistic neo-authoritarian citadels of the sort admired by the alt-right cadre currently surrounding Trump.
For his part, Trump has a penchant for recycling some of history’s most noxious phrases, not least of them “America First” which was the slogan of Charles Lindbergh’s racist, anti-Semitic isolationist movement between the wars. “Enemy of the people” has an equally toxic pedigree—with an interesting twist. A variation was first employed during the great Jacobin terror that followed the French Revolution. Lenin—whose penchant for social destruction Bannon has cited approvingly—published an essay “Vrag Naroda,”enemy of the people in Russian, in which he admiringly quoted the Jacobin leader Robespierre’s sentiment: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation,” he said. “It owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.”
The irony, of course, is that we English speakers know the phrase “enemy of the people” best because it is the title of one of Hendrik Ibsen’s masterpieces, though his people’s enemy was the drama’s indomitable hero. Thomas Stockmann, the physician in a small Norwegian town, discovers that the waters in the therapeutic baths on which the municipality’s economy depends have been contaminated by the local tannery. Against the opposition of every civic leader and even his own brother and father-in-law he insists on spreading the facts at a town meeting. Instead of welcoming his truthful warning, the townspeople turn on him as their “enemy.” His practice is destroyed, his daughter loses her teaching job and he and his family are evicted from their vandalized home, but still Stockmann refuses to repudiate the medical facts he knows to be true.
Ibsen’s drama resonates with contemporary themes: the tradeoff between economic interests and sound environmental policies, the willful denial of scientific truth, the social responsibilities of scientists, the moral and professional complications of whistle-blowing. (Just to make things perfect, Stockmann is an imperfect hero, platitudinous and self-righteous, like a fair number of journalists. His contemporary adapters, like Arthur Miller, have found it necessary to edit the play, excising passages such as the one in which Stockmann’s contemptuous dismissal of the uneducated townspeople slides into an endorsement of eugenics.)
Friday, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump reiterated his new epithet even more emphatically: “A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are,” he said. “They are the enemy of the people.” The press, he said, “doesn’t represent the people, It never will represent the people and we’re going to do something about it. . .”
Ominous, particularly from a vindictive office-holder who previously has fulminated about expanding the libel laws and using the IRS against Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post. Even so, as someone who has spent half a century of his life in journalism, I’m content to be denounced as an American Stockmann, a flawed truth-teller.
Trump’s anti-press jihad actually fits snuggly into what former CIA and NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden has described as the president’s “systematic effort to invalidate and delegitimize all the institutions, governmental and nongovernmental, that create the factual basis for action . . . so they won’t push back against arbitrary moves.” (It’s worth keeping in mind that Trump’s campaign of de-legitimization extends to the federal judiciary, as well as the media.)
The press can push back, as the aggressive coverage, particularly by Trump’s bêtes noires—the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN in particular—is demonstrating on a now daily basis. Moreover, despite the Oval Office occupant’s repeated taunts about “failing” media, all of the quality news outlets have seen dramatic increases in their circulation since his election. The Times, for example, now has a combined print and digital subscriber base of more than 3 million, an all-time high.
Trump’s other target, immigrants, are another matter. Despite the best efforts of progressive states like California and Democratic cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, our immigrant communities already are being thrown into disruptive paroxysms of justifiable anxiety by the Trump Administration move toward mass deportations of the undocumented and restrictions on legal immigration. It does not matter that the practical financial and legal considerations involved make rounding up the 11 million immigrants without papers impossible. So, too, the building of that fantasy wall Trump keeps talking about. The fact is that, by creating a new climate of insecurity and uncertainty, Trump and his henchmen already are throwing the lives of millions of our productive newcomers into anxious chaos. Even in states like California, increasing numbers are afraid to go about their daily lives, fearful of running afoul of a newly empowered “Migra.”
That insecurity will prove particularly disruptive for California, whose population includes the country’s largest number of legal and undocumented immigrants. The latter group is estimated to number 2.4 million people. (California also is the nation’s leading destination for refugees and received more of the Syrian exiles Trump has reviled as a “Trojan horse” than any other state in 2016.) About 45% of all the workers employed in California’s vital agricultural sector—the nation’s largest and most productive—are without papers, as are nearly one third of all construction workers. The food service and hospitality sectors employ equally large numbers of undocumented newcomers.
Los Angeles, home to the country’s second largest population of immigrants without papers—an estimated 1,060,000 people—and its largest group of documented newcomers, is particularly vulnerable to the administration crackdown. Last year, immigrants accounted for 35.7%–$232 billion—of the entire county’s gross domestic product. Those immigrants comprise 53.6% of the City of Los Angeles’ self-employed workers and 37.8% of its entire labor force. They paid $6.9 billion in federal income taxes and $3.2 billion in state and local taxes.
Trump’s antipathy toward them, which provided the launching pad for his entire presidential campaign, is based on two allegations: Immigrants are disproportionately criminals; newcomers take jobs from American workers and generally depress wages for the native born who are employed. Both charges are false, based on those alternative facts upon which the Trumpites so routinely rely.
As David Brooks recently pointed out, “An exhaustive study by the National Academy of Sciences found that immigration din’t drive down most wages, but it had a ‘very small’ and temporary effect on native-born workers without a high school degree,” a group that makes up a tiny fragment of the overall U.S. labor force. There are currently about 200,000 unfilled construction jobs in the country and, despite builders’ outreach to recent high school graduates, the need remains unmet. Similarly, a recent report on PBS found that apprentice programs designed to train high school graduates for well-paying scientific and technical positions—the kinds of jobs our real economy continues to produce—are going begging for applicants. If there really are “takers” against whom the GOP loves to fume in the American population, they look suspiciously like those white Trump voters.
When it comes to immigrant criminality, the factual picture is even starker, because it is more meticulously documented. According to the FBI and State Department of Justice, California’s statewide crime rate in every major category has declined precipitously—by 62%–alongside the great immigration of the past two decades. Violent crime is down 50% over the period. Today, despite providing a home to the nation’s largest immigrant population, Californians are 30% less likely to die a violent death than residents of the other 49 states. As Mike Males, a senior researcher for the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, recently pointed out, while overdoses on illegally obtained drugs rose by 160% across America over the past 16 years, they climbed by only 27% in California. Los Angeles and San Francisco—two of Trump’s reviled “sanctuary cities”—have murder rates that are half or less than places like Topeka and Tulsa.
Trump, of course, has no ideas of his own. He is entirely a creature of impulse and appetite, incapable of framing ethical choice as anything but a series of transactions defined by profit and loss or of entertaining a concept that does not place him at the center of the world. He’s a schoolyard bully and malignant narcissist for whom ideology would be an impediment. The same cannot be said for Bannon, Stephen Miller, Michael Anton, Sebastian Gorky and the rest of the ethno-nationalist, alt-right cabal who now infest the West Wing. They want a halt not only to undocumented immigration, but to legal immigration, as well, a return to a “traditionalist,” overwhelmingly white, mostly Christian nation of generations past.
You hear an echo of their influence in Trump’s recent speeches demanding that all newcomers and refugees must demonstrate that they “love” America. Putting aside the question of just how such a thing could be established, it—like Trump’s invocation of America First and Enemy of the People—comes larded with sinister historical implications, benevolent as it may sound.
As the late Tzvetan Todorov—himself an immigrant to France from his native Bulgaria—put it, “One can demand from newcomers to the country that they respect its laws or the social contract that binds all citizens, but not that they love it. Public duties and private feelings, values and traditions do not belong to the same sphere. Only totalitarian societies make it obligatory to love one’s country.”