Mr. President, You’re No Tom Jefferson

Filling in for George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday, Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl closed out the Sunday morning political show with a rousing monologue, promising that American journalism would stand firm in the face of President Trump’s continued attacks.

Trying to place Trump’s recent declaration that the news media are “the enemy of the American people” in historical context, Karl also made mention of the fact that antagonism between the president and the press is nothing new; Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, for example, had notably testy relationships with the Fourth Estate.

This is not the first time I have heard this line of thinking; a pundit on another cable news program (I can’t remember which, but probably Morning Joe) recently made the same point.

And it’s not untrue or unfair. BUTwe have never, to my knowledge, had a president enforce the blacklisting of newspapers he happened to be angry at, or cavalierly threaten to ‘open libel laws’ (whatever that means – there aren’t really any federal libel laws) in order to more easily silence unflattering media.

This. is. different.

It’s worth noting that Jefferson, over the course of his brilliant career, was a vigorous defender of the free press. Trump quoted Jefferson at his campaign rally (a campaign rally? fucking hell…) one week ago to make the case that Jefferson was virulently opposed to newspapers writ large. In fact, the Jefferson reference in question was written in response to reports that he was banging his slave Sally Hemings…which he totally was. So Jefferson might be forgiven for being a wee bit angry that one time.

It is also worth noting that in the 19th century, the idea of objective, nonpartisan political reporting was something of a joke; American newspapers often functioned essentially as mouthpieces for political parties and were, in many cases, even subsidized by them. So perhaps the relationships between the press and presidents who have been dead for one or two centuries should probably not be used as prooftexts for justifying an all-out assault on contemporary journalism?

I fear this is yet another desperate attempt by well-meaning Americans to normalize the abnormal.

(By desperate I just mean there are a lot of well-meaning people currently trying to normalize Donald Trump because the cognitive dissonance presented by the reality of his presidency is too much to handle emotionally, which is totally understandable, if problematic.)

It’s one thing for a president to become frustrated by what he sees as a misrepresentation of his policy objectives; every president is bound to experience that. A fair example with respect to the current administration: the travel ban. The vast majority of Muslim-majority countries were not included in the travel ban, yet some have derided it nevertheless as a Muslim ban, perhaps in part because of their presuppositional belief that Donald Trump is Islamophobic.

But it’s another thing entirely for a president to become unhinged because the news media is correcting objective falsehoods that he nevertheless continues to propagate.

In the big boy world, Mr. President, it’s not acceptable to chastise the press in instances where you have told a provable falsehood, repeatedly and with abandon, despite all evidence to the contrary, possibly and probably as a means of whipping your supporters into a frenzy, simply because you don’t like that print journalism and cable news have taken you to task.

Thomas Jefferson operated out of the same baseline of facts as the newspaper writers who covered his presidency, even as and when he disavowed their interpretations of his decisions. And that is why, Mr. President, you’ll never be Thomas Jefferson.

Plus he was just way, way smarter than you.

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