A Fluid Concept of Truth in the Trump White House

A Fluid Concept of Truth in the Trump White House

The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America

by Jim Acosta. Harper, New York, 2019. 354 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Corbett

In The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America, CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta recounts a "running war"—in President Trump's own words—that the president wages against the national press corps, who he repeatedly calls "fake news" and "the enemy of the American people."

In a systematic and compelling account drawn from his coverage of the Trump White House, Acosta chronicles the efforts of the president and his press secretaries to wage war against journalists that do not provide favorable coverage, question the accuracy of facts or the wisdom of policies, or simply do not demonstrate the amount of deference desired by the administration. Judging from a February, 2017 tweet from the president, these "enemies of the American people" that report "fake news" include: The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and, of course, CNN.

As reported in The Enemy of the People, the methods of press suppression vary—ignoring questions from targeted journalists at White House press conferences, threatening to ban them from significant briefings if they question certain subjects, leaving them off the invite list to certain events, and assigning aides to get in their faces and shout them down. In Acosta's case, suppression included the revocation of his White House press pass, which a court promptly struck down as a violation of due process.

Acosta contends that undermining the press allows the president to crush unfavorable coverage, to excite his base, and to control the narrative—all for the purpose of advancing his policies. As Acosta incisively notes, in discussing the caravan of four thousand migrants heading to the US-Mexico border, and the president's assertions in October, 2018 that there were people of Middle Eastern descent, criminals, and MS-13 gang members in the caravan: "If Trump could convince enough people that there were potential terrorists crossing the border, then he could conceivably secure enough support for any kind of policy, from a medieval wall to a family-separation policy that devastates the lives of untold numbers of children." Thus, a vigorous and loud attack on the press drowns out fact-checking that could otherwise contribute to an informed national discussion of immigration policy.

Acosta also holds Republican leadership partly responsible for fueling animosity against the press. By not calling out the president on his more outrageous conduct and statements, it is left entirely to the press to do so. When your party is poised to achieve its objectives—such as the tax cuts enacted in 2017—that appears to be sufficient motivation to refuse to confront the president, even about his inflammatory statements that disputed who was responsible for the deadly violence in Charlottesville in August, 2017.

The book also describes an increasing level of verbal hostility and a feeling of impending violence experienced by Acosta and other journalists at Trump rallies. Acosta receives an increasing number of death threats through social media and, in October, 2018, a Trump supporter mails a pipe bomb to CNN headquarters and to prominent persons viewed as oppositional to the president. Eventually, concern runs high enough that CNN provides the author with bodyguards when he attends Trump rallies.

While many of the events recounted in The Enemy of the People are well known in isolation, the power of the book lies in the convincing effect of stringing them together in a narrative, backed by behind-the-scenes insights from the author. As the text jumps back and forth in time over a period of several years, the book would benefit from a timeline to help guide the reader. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of walking through these numerous threats to a free press is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. This book identifies a common thread of intimidation.

The book also raises the question of whether a war on the press also encompasses a war on the truth, and on the long-accepted principle that obtaining the facts is essential to a democracy. If an assertion is shouted loudly and often enough, and if it is declared to be huge and the best, and if it is approved enthusiastically at large rallies in big arenas, doesn't it automatically, by some sort of newly invented power of cumulative forceful acclamation, achieve the same status as the objective truth? No. And in The Enemy of the People, no is a complete answer.

In effect, the Trump White House contributed the title of this book. As to the subtitle, A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America, the author has sufficiently justified it by providing a significant and coherent narrative of events that document a relentless and possibly escalating war on the press and the truth, and an advancement of the dangerous notion that objective facts are fading in relevance.