The British media call the slow days of summer ‘the silly season’. American media speak of the ‘dog days’. The politicians are on vacation. The Acela Corridor seems strangely empty, as anyone who is anyone gets out of the sweaty cities of the Northeast. But there is still copy to file and space to fill. Hence the jollies and frivolities of the silly season, and the learned disquisitions on the Roman dies caniculares, and their association with heat waves, fever and mad dogs.
Cometh the season, cometh the silliness, the fever and the dogs. On Thursday, a veritable pack of newspapers, co-ordinated by the Boston Globe, published feverish unsigned editorials denouncing Donald Trump’s alleged ‘dirty war’ on the press. His administration’s ‘sustained assault on the free press’, the Globe claimed, endangers American democracy.
‘The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful,’ the Globe wrote.
The syntax is no less strangulated than that of Trump’s caps-locked Twitter rants. Does nobody edit any more? And who is more powerful here—a president bound by checks and balances, or privately-owned media companies?
The president locked his caps and fired off a tabloid headline on Twitter. ‘THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY.’ The Globe and its collaborators were ‘in collusion’ against the re-greatening of America. ‘BUT WE ARE WINNING!’
With opponents like this, Trump couldn’t lose if he tried. The militarised language of the protest — the ‘sustained assault’, the ‘dirty war’ — is, to use another militarised term, disproportionate, if not verging on the irrational. It was wrong, of course, of Trump to use the phrase ‘enemy of the people’, though it is heartening that, despite the pressures of office, he still has time to think about Ibsen plays. But it was wrong because, as so often with Trump, it was a failure of manners. It is unpresidential to wink at the intimidation and persecution of people you don’t like. Even if they are journalists.
It is, however, unprofessional of the anti-Trump press to compare itself to the US Marines at Khe Sahn, dug in against human waves of Breitbart commentators and precision bombardment by White House press secretaries. It is even more silly and tasteless to compare Trump’s candid dislike of people who candidly dislike him to a ‘dirty war’.
The phrase ‘dirty war’ describes the kidnapping, torture and ‘disappearance’ of some 30,000 Argentinians during the fascist dictatorship of 1974 and 1983. Nothing in the current hostilities between Trump and the pro-Democratic press compares to this. The ease with which the Globe and its allies reached for this metaphor shows the extent of their delusion. If you endorse the vocabulary of ‘resistance’, a term previously applied to those conducting guerrilla warfare or terrorism, then it might seem reasonable to imagine that critics of the Trump administration face the metaphorical equivalent of torture and being thrown into the sea from helicopters. If, that is, metaphorical equivalents exist for such things.
The Globe and its friends are misrepresenting the problem, and the nature of American reality. There is plenty of free speech in online America, though too much of it is malicious. The threat to the freedom of the press does not come from Trump or the ever-retreating horizon of American ‘fascism’, but from the Internet’s devaluing of information, and the Internet giants’ ever-advancing monopolies on information. Hence, as Trump pointed out, the ‘Failing New York Times’ buying the failing Globe for ‘2.1 BILLION DOLLARS’, and selling it for ‘1 DOLLAR’. The nature of freedom in the United States of the future will not be defined by our elected representatives. It is already being redefined by the people’s choice, the digital coalition of the parties of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. To suggest that Donald Trump is the real enemy of the people and a free press is to promote an incomplete and self-serving kind of soft propaganda—which is what he calls ‘fake news’.
To use a military metaphor, the Globe and its friends have shot themselves in the foot. They look foolish, unreliable and aristocratically distant from ordinary Americans. As the LA Times said in an editorial explaining why it wouldn’t be joining the Globe’s initiative, a co-ordinated attack on Trump tends to confirm his conviction that most of the media are out to get him—which they are. The editorials are a silly-season gift to Trump. They demonstrate to Trump supporters and neutral observers alike that ‘the elites’ really do think he is an illegitimate president—‘un-American’, as the Globe has it. Their hyperbole makes the bully look like a victim, and even presidential by default.
Anyone who endured the last three election campaigns knows that most of the pro-Democratic media failed in its self-appointed task of speaking truth to power. Instead, it spoke half-truths on behalf of power, like a courtier positioning himself by the throne, while sneering at the Republican peasants. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, other than alienating half of your potential audience. Newspapers have always been the mouthpieces of their owners, and cable news has long since been the visual equivalent of National Enquirer. So Trump is right to describe the anti-Trump media as the ‘opposition party’. That is what they are, and what they should be: civilians advocating a common principle. Too bad that they can’t be honest about their partisanship.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.