Opinion

On Trump's lies, contempt for journalism, and authoritarianism

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, The Times’ letters editor, and it is Saturday, April 8, 2017. Much of California today is getting — wait for it — more rain and snow today. Here’s a look back at the week in Opinion.

The Times Editorial Board did not mince words this week. In a blistering six-part assessment of the still-nascent Trump administration, the board blasted the commander in chief’s constant lying, his embrace of conspiracy theories, his hostility to journalism and his authoritarian approach to executing the awesome powers of the American presidency.

Our editorial board expressed serious reservations about Trump the GOP nominee during the Republican primary and endorsed Hillary Clinton during the general election, so the paper’s opposition to Trump might come as no surprise. But newspaper editorial boards tend to express their criticism of any political figure — from a school board member up to a head of state — more dispassionately than, say, an opinion columnist might, making The Times’ series on Trump particularly noteworthy (more on that later).

The Times began its series with an editorial titled “Our Dishonest President,” listing three areas of particular concern about Trump:

1. Trump’s shocking lack of respect for those fundamental rules and institutions on which our government is based. Since Jan. 20, he has repeatedly disparaged and challenged those entities that have threatened his agenda, stoking public distrust of essential institutions in a way that undermines faith in American democracy. He has questioned the qualifications of judges and the integrity of their decisions, rather than acknowledging that even the president must submit to the rule of law. He has clashed with his own intelligence agencies, demeaned government workers and questioned the credibility of the electoral system and the Federal Reserve. He has lashed out at journalists, declaring them “enemies of the people,” rather than defending the importance of a critical, independent free press. His contempt for the rule of law and the norms of government are palpable.

2. His utter lack of regard for truth. Whether it is the easily disprovable boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd or his unsubstantiated assertion that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, the new president regularly muddies the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether he actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal — or whether he intentionally conflates the two to befuddle voters, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, he is encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media — and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a divided country in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible.

3. His scary willingness to repeat alt-right conspiracy theories, racist memes and crackpot, out-of-the-mainstream ideas. Again, it is not clear whether he believes them or merely uses them. But to cling to disproven “alternative” facts; to retweet racists; to make unverifiable or false statements about rigged elections and fraudulent voters; to buy into discredited conspiracy theories first floated on fringe websites and in supermarket tabloids — these are all of a piece with the Barack Obama birther claptrap that Trump was peddling years ago and which brought him to political prominence. It is deeply alarming that a president would lend the credibility of his office to ideas that have been rightly rejected by politicians from both major political parties....

Those who oppose the new president’s reckless and heartless agenda must make their voices heard. Protesters must raise their banners. Voters must turn out for elections. Members of Congress — including and especially Republicans — must find the political courage to stand up to Trump. Courts must safeguard the Constitution. State legislators must pass laws to protect their citizens and their policies from federal meddling. All of us who are in the business of holding leaders accountable must redouble our efforts to defend the truth from his cynical assaults.

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Part II: Why Trump Lies: “The insult that Donald Trump brings to the equation is an apparent disregard for fact so profound as to suggest that he may not see much practical distinction between lies, if he believes they serve him, and the truth.” L.A. Times

Part III: Trump’s Authoritarian Vision: “What’s uniquely threatening about Trump’s approach, though, is how many fronts he’s opened in this struggle for power and the vehemence with which he seeks to undermine the institutions that don’t go along.” L.A. Times

Part IV: Trump’s War on Journalism: “In Donald Trump’s America, the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered as ‘enemies of the people.’ ” L.A. Times

Part V: Conspiracy Theorist in Chief: “If Trump feels free to take to Twitter to make wild, paranoid, unsubstantiated accusations against his predecessor, why should the nation believe what he says about a North Korean missile test, Russian troop movements in Europe or a natural disaster in the United States?” L.A. Times

Part VI: California Fights Back: “The reality is that California cannot go it alone. Let’s stop fantasizing about ‘Calexit.’ As fun as it may be to imagine California taking its giant, job-creating, climate-protecting, immigrant-friendly economy and building its own nation, history suggests that would be neither wise nor feasible. California is an integral part of the United States, where it should remain, staying actively engaged.” L.A. Times

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Did The Times “preach to the choir”? Some readers said so, and Editorial Page Editor Nicholas Goldberg was asked about it in a radio interview. His response, in part: “Well, it’s hard to change people’s minds in the political climate we have right now. We always want to change people’s minds. We always hope to persuade; that's why we lay out a coherent argument as best we can; whether we succeed, I'm not sure.” KPCC

A sample of how this played out in right-wing media: Breitbart headlined its report “Los Angeles Times editorial loses it over Trump.” Over at Fox News’ “Fox & Friends,” a program tweeted at approvingly by no less than the president himself, one commentator said the editorial board’s goal was “invalidating the Trump presidency.”

Most letter writers agreed with the editorial board’s criticism, although some said it was odd for the paper to say that “nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck.” Several readers worried the Trump presidency may permanently change America for the worse, while his defenders wrote that The Times’ attacks revealed more about the paper itself than they said about the Trump.

Reach me: paul.thornton@latimes.com

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