Because I have a life (as do you), I didn’t waste the warm Saturday twilight watching the adoration junkie serve up delusional pap to his acolytes.
Still, as always, it was impossible to tune out Trump’s greatest hits — like his clanging alarm bell about “last night in Sweden,” some nonexistent calamity that prompted a former Swedish prime minister to ask what Trump had been smoking. But the best sound bite was his reference to Thomas Jefferson.
This was a beaut. Trump pounds us day after day with so many outright lies that it’s easy to overlook his sneaky sleight-of-hand, his dark gift for yanking a fact out of context to give us a semi-lie that looks like a truth.
That’s what he did with Jefferson. In the midst of his latest scapegoating rant about the media – that’s what his flock came to the hangar to hear, much the way ’60s rock fans came to see Jimi Hendrix burn his guitar – Trump said this:
“They have their own agenda and their agenda is not your agenda. In fact, Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself,’ he said, ‘becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.’ That was June 14, my birthday, 1807.”
Oh, man. Anyone who wants to take a college course in Thomas Jefferson should steer clear of Professor Trump.
Did Jefferson dump on the press in that 1807 letter, near the tail end of his presidency? Absolutely. The quote was accurate. But Trump didn’t tell his fans why Jefferson was mad. (He probably has no idea.) Here’s why:
Because newspapers owned by the opposition party were running story after story about how he’d slept with a slave, Sally Hemings, and fathered some of her children. As we now know — indeed, as the official Jefferson Monticello website acknowledges, based on what it calls the best “documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence” — Jefferson did father numerous children with Hemings.
So, in that angry 1807 passage, President Jefferson was actually denouncing as FAKE NEWS a series of stories that were actually true. I need not dwell on the ironies.
What we really need to remember about Jefferson (guaranteed, Trump doesn’t know this) is that over his long career as a maddeningly elusive public figure, he took both sides of many many issues. There’s a handy Jefferson quote for almost any occasion. For instance, when he was in a sunnier mood, he also said this about the press: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Heck, down in Washington, the journalism museum sells magnets emblazoned with a Jefferson quote culled from a letter he penned 16 years after his angry 1807 missive. In 1823 he declared that “the only security of all is in a free press.” In that letter, he said that a free press benefits the citizenry: “The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.”
What a shame that Don the Con failed to put Jefferson in context for his fans. No matter, they just swallow whatever he says. They are the soft turf on which despots march.
But since this is Presidents Day, here’s a Jeffersonian warning that needs no context: “All the powers of government…concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. An elective despotism is not the government we fought for.”
Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher best known for her coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, didn’t live to see our so-called president smear journalists as “enemies of the people.” But remarks she made in a 1974 interview read like a response:
“Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another. The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.
“This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”