There could be no better illustration of the moral decline of the United States of America and the fall from grace of its flawed but still great democracy, than President Donald J. Trump. School books will one day teach children how the leadership of a nation – whose first soldier-president, George Washington, is mythically remembered for never telling a lie – was usurped by its first businessman president, a man who rarely told the truth.
According to a The Washington Post, as of July 31, Mr. Trump has made 4,229 false or misleading claims since he assumed the presidency. When the US newspaper began fact-checking he averaged 4.9 a day, but in June and July he raised the stakes, making false claims at a rate of 16 a day on average. His overall average for fibbing is now 7.6 a day.
President Trump personifies the shabby era of ‘post-truth,’ jabbering “fake news, fake news” at his rallies. He seems more and more concerned with rallying himself at times. They are his happy hours, the times when his scowl vanishes. He beams as he boasts and the Trumpers howl their approval in response.
As a schoolboy in wartime London, I learned the story of how a six-year-old George Washington had been gifted a hatchet and used it to chop down one of his father’s cherry trees. The guilt ate away at him, worrying about it all though supper, before he could stand it no more, admitting it to his father, who responded that he was proud of him for owning up. It is a small, but enduring lesson in morality, the type that has served the United States well. But could that sentiment, that sinew of the nation’s moral physique survive Donald J. Trump?
These are unbelievable times in the United States. How could the young country that anticipated the French Revolution in declaring equality and liberty for all, the country that kept trying to live up to the expectations of its declaration of independence and its muchimitated constitution, be brought so low by a salesman of fake promises? There is, as yet, no ‘grieta’ in the United States. The niceties in society are still observed, despite the insults exchanged on social media. The advent of Trumpism, which embodies the worst elements of North American society, has emboldened and augmented the noise from the political underworld. There has been no surge of dangerous political radicalisation. We simply live in a miasma of degeneracy. Privately, people share their fears that democracy is in danger, but reassure each other that Mr. Trump is not Hitler.
Mr. Trump’s pledge “to make America great again” sounds to some of us like a threat to revert to racism and intolerance. But most of all I am reminded of W.B. Yeats poem, The Second Coming, which was published just one year short of a century ago. I cannot help but be disturbed and moved by words that are haunting, warning and undimmed by time: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. It closes with horror, its last couplet still as terrifying as ever: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
So, what can save us? Perhaps the answer is some old-fashioned journalism that will shrug off the “fake news” taunts and the criminal libel that holds that those professionals who tell it as it is are “enemies of the people.”
The good news is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – two men who as vulnerable young reporters for The Washington Post spent two years doorstepping, searching files and digging out the truth about Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency – are back. Bernstein is at CNN, brashly critical as ever in taking on the Trump administration. Woodward, quiet and careful, as is his custom, has written a book (his 19th, thus covering every president from Nixon to Trump).
It will be out officially on September 11, but it will surely be leaked before then. The title is Fear: Trump in the White House. It derives from a remark by then-candidate Trump in an interview with Mr. Woodward and The Post’s top political reporter Robert Costa in April 2016.
At the time, Costa asked Trump whether he agreed with then-president Barack Obama, who had said that “real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” Mr. Trump responded: “Well, I think there’s a certain truth … real power is through respect.” Then, in what Mr. Woodward described as “an almost Shakespearean aside,” Trump added: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word: ‘Fear.’”
Publishers Simon & Schuster have trailed that the book “reveals in unprecedented detail the harrowing life” inside the Trump White House “and precisely how he makes decisions on major foreign and domestic policies.”
Woodward, who has worked for The Washington Post for 47 years, kept a low profile while working on the book. Reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote that Mr. Woodward had gone back to “some of the signature moves of his youthful reporting days.” He added: “The expected tenor of the book is underscored by its unsettling cover, an extreme close-up of a squintyeyed Trump depicted through a gauzy red filter.”
Friends say that over the past two years, Mr. Woodward had been dropping by the houses of sources late at night, in pursuit of facts and documents. In other words, he has returned to old-fashioned journalism.
Continuing that trail of thought lends me to wonder how that legendary editor of the Post the time, Ben Bradlee, would have handled the Trump administration? His widow, Sally Quinn, who still writes for the paper, offered her perspective in a recent interview:
“Ben would not be hyperventilating about Trump, as some journalists are,” she explained. “He encountered plenty of politicians who tried to disguise self-interest as national interest, who suggested that exposing domestic blunders or national security embarrassments was unpatriotic. Trump has broken historic new ground for an American president in calling journalists ‘the enemy of the people.’
“But Ben would have exuberantly accepted the challenge, as many top editors are doing today, to assert the independence of the news media and to defend and vindicate the highest values of our profession. He believed to his core that lies might work for presidents for a while, but that there is always a price to be paid, that the truth emerges eventually.”
She concluded: “People often ask me what Ben would do today. I think he would say: ‘Get the story. Get it first, but get it right.’ He’d be encouraged by how many good examples of that are being published every day. And he would keep pushing for more. Like Ben, I’m an optimist. The truth will emerge. And it will matter.”
At this time, when democracy is under stress in many countries, it is journalism, the Fourth Estate that must come into its own and ensure the centre holds. We must hope journalism holds Trump to account.