President Donald Trump seems to feel the need to have the biggest everything. In so doing, he diminishes himself.
On his first day in office, after an inaugural address that eschewed the longstanding tradition of seeking to unite the country, he remained in campaign mode, aggressively attacking the media, portraying the country as diminished and defeated, and insisting that his inauguration was the largest ever.
The next day he visited the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, presumably to mend fences with its leaders who he had mocked as incompetent and compared to Nazis. But after a brief outburst of praise, Trump chose to blame his rift with CIA on the media rather than acknowledge his own actions. Two days later he told a group of congressional leaders that he had the largest number of legitimate votes in the November election, insisting that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton — a proven falsehood.
The combination of the president’s pettiness, narcissism, and nastiness in making assertions that simply aren’t true does not bode well for the coming months and years. Politics is one thing; we can agree or disagree with the direction Trump wants to take the country. But lying, and calling it “alternative facts” — a phrase that would make George Orwell smile — is unacceptable and undermines the foundations of our society.
When the president belittles mainstream journalists as “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” it’s a reflection of more than his anger and insecurity. It appears to be a calculated strategy to avoid and undermine the press, allowing him to present his message directly to the nation through tweets and his spokespersons, without verification and obfuscating to avoid answering any pesky follow-ups. He is saying, in effect, “don’t believe the news reports you read in the newspaper or see on television or hear on the radio. Those folks are lying; trust me.”
Shouldn’t we know better? Our radar for falsehoods ought to be up. A few months ago former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni testified that he believed the rush hour lane closures on the George Washington Bridge was for a traffic study, not an act of vengeance against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. One of Trump’s most outrageous campaign claims was his unsubstantiated assertion that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City celebrated as the World Trade Center fell.
Jews know all too well how damaging “alternative facts” can be. Remember the wildly exaggerated number of civilian casualties in the Palestinian territories during the Gaza Conflict in 2014? Or how the UN refused to acknowledge that it had found rockets Palestinian militants had stored in elementary schools? Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s bombastic declaration that Israeli settlements were a bigger obstacle to peace than Palestinian terrorism should be fresh in our minds.
Our Founding Fathers insisted that a free press would be a key element in our democracy, recognizing its role in keeping politicians honest and the citizenry informed. Let’s hope that President Trump’s legacy will not be: biggest threat to our system of government.