One important, if meta, story that has arisen since the election of Donald J. Trump is this one: How should the media cover the soon-to-be president in an era when neither truth nor shame hold any sway? A few indispensable pieces by James Fallows (“The news media are not built for someone like this“) and Jack Shafer (“Think three steps ahead of Trump! Improvise! We need to play our best game, not his”) show that, unless we figure this mess out swiftly, journalists—and more importantly, the American people—will continue to be played by Trump.
There is one strain of thinking that suggests, not at all unreasonably, that as journalists we must not take our eyes off the “real stories” (conflicts of interest, violations of the Emoluments Clause, dangerous Cabinet appointments) to cover the craziness of Trump’s itchy Twitter finger. Jonathan Chait, for instance, warned us Tuesday morning not to pay too much attention to Trump’s latest threats to jail and strip citizenship from flag-burners, because it’s a deliberate distraction from the corruption and conflicts he doesn’t want probed. “Trump does not want coverage of his plans to enrich himself and his family or to strip the safety net,” Chait writes. “A fight over patriotism and citizenship frames the president-elect as the champion of American nationalism — giving a kind of legitimacy that overcomes his defeat in the national vote.” And Paul Waldman similarly cautions in the Washington Post that calling out every last awful and demonstrably false Trump tweet only serves to further reinforce his followers’ views about a biased press and will only spread his lies more widely.
Chait, Waldman, and their brethren are probably right about why Trump tweets and the dangers of covering his 140-character spasms. They think we must try as journalists and readers to erect a kind of wall of sanity between Trump’s demented and perhaps deliberately distracting tweets and his actions—that we must try to draw a line between what is real enough to cover and what is noise. More and more I suspect we should ignore their advice.
Man is it tempting to believe that we can create a rule that tells us when to write about a 3 a.m. Trump tweet. How sane and logical it could be if we could simply cordon off Trump’s real thoughts and deeds from his Dada rantings. Then maybe we in the press could still do at least some creditable work in covering that which we know to be real—secretary of transportation appointments and the dismemberment of Obamacare and Medicare. But the truth for journalists is that we cannot pick and choose which of Trump’s words matter, and the larger truth is that we shouldn’t try. All of his words matter, and none of us have any notion at this stage which threats are predictors of doom and which are mere burps and farts.
As demoralizing and painful as it is to have to report and interpret the crazy Trump statements as seriously as we do the “legitimate” ones, that is necessarily going to be the work of the coming years. We don’t get to impose a hierarchy of our own chosen logic or meaning on a presidency constructed of lies and deflections. We must treat even the most deranged speech acts as dangerous, without giving Trump credit for only meaning some of the threats and floating the others simply to confuse us. Just because Trump’s ethical violations and Cabinet appointments appear to be more immediate and troubling than his inchoate assault on speech and protest, rest assured that he is capable of doing it all. We need to take the actual deeds and vague language as equally frightening. Processing only what appears rational or immediately threatening means not doing our job.
Will this lead journalists to sometimes “take the bait” and let Trump dictate the terms of our coverage via what he decides to tweet about in the middle of the night, as some have suggested? I don’t think that’s the right question to ask. After all, agreeing to not cover his tweets also allows him to dictate the terms of discourse. Ignoring his more outlandish tweets during the campaign didn’t make them less real than his policy papers.
As for his motivations: It’s irrelevant whether these tweets are the work of a cunning chess master or a damp TV-watching toddler who can’t control himself when his aides leave his side. Whether his rants are intentional or accidental distractions is between Trump and his own lizard brain. The fact that these tweets are destabilizing to the rule of law is all that matters.
One of the most compelling arguments for treating Trump’s madcap tweets as deathly serious comes from Masha Gessen’s long meditation on surviving an autocracy in the New York Review of Books, in which she puts forth, as her rule No. 1, “Believe the autocrat.” Gessen, who has the experience to know, writes that, despite the fact that the autocrat seems completely crazy or distracting, “he means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.”
The other truly necessary caution against sorting Trump’s statements into those that are terrifying but real and those that are terrifying but crazy comes from Ned Resnikoff, writing this week on ThinkProgress about Trump’s lies. His point is that even Trump’s biggest whoppers—like his recent statements about voter fraud—have a purpose: to create an alternate reality and to cause us to doubt our own reality. This goes beyond lying for manipulation. It is, as Resnikoff contends, a way to create a need for a strong-man presidency: “By attacking the very notion of shared reality, the president-elect is making normal democratic politics impossible. When the truth is little more than an arbitrary personal decision, there is no common ground to be reached and no incentive to look for it.”
Tempting though it may be to cherry-pick which portions of Trump’s sprawling alternate reality are real-real and which are distractions from what we think are real is its own form of insanity: It assumes that there is some underlying political truth that we as journalists can ferret out by consensus, but there is not.
When Trump tells us in the English language that he intends to strip American protesters of their citizenship and overrule the Supreme Court’s holdings on protected speech, we in the press should not spend a lot of time agonizing over what he really means or what he’s trying to say. He just told us. Now let’s cover it, and cover it like he means it. I suspect he does.