The news of a wave of mail bombs sent to various critics of President Trump was a genuinely frightening moment, and in such moments modern Americans instinctively turn to the president to perform the office’s role of ceremonial head of state. Much of the cable-news chatter focused on whether, or for how many minutes, Trump could stick to the dignified script of denouncing violence and advocating civility. The unsurprising answer was: not very long.
But the important issue here is not Trump’s inability to convincingly advocate civility for an entire news cycle. Indeed, civility is not really the question at all. The issue is Trump’s conviction that he should not be subjected to any scrutiny or criticism.
That view came through despite Trump’s attempt to deliver a scripted denunciation of political violence. “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks,” Trump announced last night. A morning tweet completed the thought:
The president is developing what is a long-standing belief among conservatives: that the mainstream news is irredeemably biased, and should be ignored altogether in favor of an alternate ecosystem of party-controlled media. While Trump was raised on the mainstream media and has never fully relinquished his desire for its approval, he has found his way toward the right-wing critique over the last couple decades.
But what has given Trump’s version of it unusual virulence is his belief that the media should be an uncritical conduit for his lies. This is the true through line of his entire career. Media manipulation, along with fraud and secret money infusions from his father, is the secret sauce of his career. The New York Times’ account of Trump’s tax fraud incidentally explains how the Times itself was recruited to create a myth of Trump’s success — in 1976, a credulous reporter went on a tour of Trump’s purported empire, and breathlessly recounted his triumphs:
In the chauffeured Cadillac, Donald Trump took The Times’s reporter on a tour of what he called his “jobs.” He told her about the Manhattan hotel he planned to convert into a Grand Hyatt (his father guaranteed the construction loan), and the Hudson River railroad yards he planned to develop (the rights were purchased by his father’s company). He showed her “our philanthropic endeavor,” the high-rise for the elderly in East Orange (bankrolled by his father), and an apartment complex on Staten Island (owned by his father), and their “flagship,” Trump Village, in Brooklyn (owned by his father), and finally Beach Haven Apartments (owned by his father). Even the Cadillac was leased by his father.
Trump persisted in manipulating the media to build his image as a brilliant deal maker by publishing lies so wild the reporters he used couldn’t fathom them. (Reporter Jonathan Greenberg later recounted one such episode, in which Trump lied his way onto the Forbes 400.) Eventually almost all of Trump’s deals collapsed, and his one remaining marketable asset was the media-created perception that he was a brilliant businessman.
The corollary to Trump’s expectation that the news media unquestioningly transmit his lies is his demand that it refrain from criticism of any kind. He was fanatical about intimidating reporters with legal threats. He would wring apologies out of any skeptics, or even get them fired — not despite the fact the criticism was true but because it was true.
In his incarnation as a political candidate, Trump has mostly lost his ability to intimidate the media with legal threats. (Politicians have a prohibitively high standard for libel in the United States.) But his expectation and worldview are the same. Any news outlet not controlled by his loyalists is “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” It must “clean up its act” — or else. Trump can’t literally attack reporters, though he can praise allies who do.
The mail-bomb threats are the leverage he craves. They are the threat that can make good on his demand, the consequence facing the media for failing to submit to his orders.
It is a supreme irony that Trump used his speech last night to delegitimize criticism. “No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains.” But the issue is that Trump, in his psychological makeup and aspirations, is precisely such a historical villain.