On Tuesday night, the President of the United States said that most journalists are liars. We are, he said, “sick people”. We are “crooked”. We are “bad”.
I would like to think this was a sketch from a Saturday Night TV show, a surreal parody to hammer home a point. It was, perhaps, a bit like A Modest Proposal, where Jonathan Swift presents the problem of hunger as an opportunity. “I have been assured,” Swift wrote, “by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”
But this was not a parody and it was not satire. The man who said that most journalists were liars was not Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump. It was the “real” Donald Trump, the man whose Twitter name is @realDonaldTrump. The real President of the United States really did say that most journalists are “bad”.
This man, who called journalists liars, lied in his speech. At a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, he lied about what he said about events in Charlottesville last week. He said that what he said about Charlottesville was “perfect”. What he said about events in Charlottesville last week, where a protester against white supremacists was killed by a white supremacist, was that there was hate on “many sides”.
A journalist is meant to use the word “alleged” when they talk about a death. I can add it if you like, but a man did drive his car into a crowd and the woman hit by that car died. So it’s hard to see what was “alleged” about that.
The white supremacists at that march were holding torches. They were chanting “Jews will not replace us”. They were chanting “blood and soil”. Quite a few were holding guns. Quite a few were carrying poles. One young woman was savagely beaten by some of those men carrying poles. The woman who was killed, and the woman who was beaten, were there to suggest that neo-Nazism is not really OK in 21st-century America. And the President of the United States backed the neo-Nazis up. There were, he said, some “very fine people” on that neo Nazi march.
The Ku Klux Klan were thrilled. Of course they were thrilled. Its former “grand wizard”, David Duke, thanked Trump on Twitter for his “honesty and courage”. Yes, a leading white supremacist really did praise a congenital liar and President of the United States for his “honesty”. This really is where we are.
On Fox News, which has continued to support Donald Trump, two African-American commentators were brought in for a debate. One was expected to criticise Trump. The other was expected to talk about the dangers of erasing history and demolishing statues. Live on air, both of them cried. Nearly 50 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, two highly educated, highly successful African-Americans spoke about their President on national television and cried. When I watched the clip, I cried, too.
Business leaders have resigned from Trump’s business councils. Trump claims to have abolished the boards, and therefore “fired” them, himself. Community groups and religious leaders have spoken out. Some Republican politicians have spoken out. The vast majority have not.
A UN Panel has denounced “the failure at the highest political level of the United States of America to unequivocally reject and condemn” racist violence. It said it is “deeply concerned by the example this failure could set for the rest of the world”. The last time this committee, for “the elimination of racial discrimination”, pronounced on anything was on ethnic violence in Burundi.
Donald Trump generates more headlines than anyone else in the world. He’s crazy for publicity. He’s probably crazy, but we journalists are not allowed to speculate about that. Apparently you have to actually examine someone to know whether or not they are crazy. You can’t actually get any kind of sense from what they say and do.
In the months after Donald Trump was elected, some people started talking about the 1930s. These people were slapped down. We were all told not to be hyperbolic. We were all told that Donald Trump would calm down. He may have campaigned like a shock jock, but he would, we were told, govern like a grown up. He has not governed like a grown up. He has made Kim Jong Un look like a serious politician, even as he ignites a serious threat of nuclear war.
We are all hooked on our Trump fixes, our Trump jokes, our Trump cartoons. We are all hooked on our Trump laughs. But this is not funny. It really, really isn’t funny. The Western world is currently led by a lying racist who is wrecking a once-great nation as casually as he wrecks lives.
Now we all have some sense of what it was like, that terrible build-up to that terrible war. People carried on laughing and dancing and eating chocolate and drinking wine. I don’t know what else you do as you watch disaster unfold. Please God, there will not be an actual war, with mushroom clouds and fireballs and millions of people wiped out. But there is certainly a war on truth and we journalists are going to have to fight it.