Has there ever been a display of presidential petulance remotely resembling the extraordinary rant – there is no other word for it – delivered by President Trump yesterday in the guise of a press conference?
Not in my recollection, and I doubt going back in time long before that.
In more recent times, President Richard Nixon, at the height of the Watergate scandal, was known to rail, privately and publicly, against what he saw as biased treatment by the press, and in language that popularised the phrase ‘expletive deleted’. Lyndon Johnson was in the habit of phoning journalists to give them a private roasting, and he was no less a peasant when it came to a well-directed agricultural oath. Bill Clinton took a few public swipes at the press during his several adulterous scandals, although these were more muttered imprecations than full-blooded attacks.
Few presidents have avoided occasional run-ins with the Fourth Estate, now referred to – increasingly as a pejorative – The Media. Politicians and newsmen are in natural conflict, and if they are not then something is wrong with both sides. But most of these clashes have been mere skirmishes. This president has declared, and is waging, all-out war. So, Trump supporters would claim, are the media.
President Trump allowed yesterday that he was ‘enjoying’ the fight. I doubt that. Obviously he is convinced that the media by and large represent the despised metropolitan elite rather than his ‘forgotten Americans’ and are out to get him by whatever means come to hand, including the invention of negative stories. Whether he is genuine in this belief, or is practising the more sinister arts of propaganda, is open to question. Some see in it neither one, only signs of a narcissistic personality disorder. Clearly, no such diagnosis can be made by those medically unqualified to offer one, least of all this writer, and even professionals would recoil from making it without first examining the patient at length. Still, even the most neutral observer has to admit that Mr. Trump’s behaviour is, if nothing worse, unusual.
One television commentator – on CNN, of course, where else? – described the president’s performance as ‘unhinged’. Even the presenters over at Fox News, who normally eschew any form of camouflage in their sympathies for Trump, sounded somewhat perplexed.
This war can’t continue without someone, or some institution, getting seriously hurt. No wars, won or lost, are fought without casualties. The first casualty in any war, of course, is the truth. So, either the president is lying through his teeth or the press are guilty as charged of making up stories with intent to hurt him and his administration. It is not entirely beyond belief that either or both are possible. But which is it?
I have my suspicions – which I shall withhold in the interest of my pledge to suspend Trump-thumping – but I and every other ordinary Joe Public can only watch the unfolding spectacle and sit back in wonder, or disgust, at what happened to the once noble art of political discourse – noble because at its best it was laced with wit. If truth is the first casualty of the present war between White House and media, then wit is the second. Playground notes have more pith than what we have heard over the past month.
I have much stronger views than this, which I will park for a later date, when my statute of limitations on Trump-thumping has expired. By then, wiser and calmer heads may have prevailed – in both camps I suppose one must add in the interests of balance – and the American political world returned to some semblance of order, if not business as usual.
That, I might add, is more an expression of hope than of expectation.
Meanwhile, I’ll sign off for now with a quote from Moliere in The Misanthrope – one that Mr. Trump would no doubt enjoy.
“We ought to punish pitilessly that shameful pretence of friendly intercourse. I like a man to be a man, and to show on all occasions the bottom of his heart in his discourse. Let that be the thing to speak, and never let our feelings be beneath vain compliments.”