Unvarnished Trump

The institutional memory that Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist, brings to his work far surpasses that of most of the commentators I read. His column this morning is to me what the new Trump-era journalism must look like. It is, alas, more Soviet-like in some respects in that it responds to Trump’s primitive reaction to unpleasant truths in a similarly direct, if more sophisticated, fashion. Trumpism will demand that journalists employ greater directness while remaining faithful to non-negotiable truth. Here Cohen explains why Sean Spicer looked terrified at his first briefing.

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Stalin and Molotov

Sean Spicer’s Stalinist apparition

By Richard Cohen, Opinion writer, The Washington Post, January 23 at 7:22 PM

Sean Spicer is the appropriate face of the new Trump administration. He is the White House press secretary, the spokesman and all of that, and he came into the briefing room on Saturday wearing the blank expression of Laurence Harvey after turning over the queen of diamonds in “The Manchurian Candidate.” You’ve heard of a molotov cocktail. Spicer was wearing a molotov face.

Vyacheslav Molotov was Joseph Stalin’s foreign minister. He was so scared of Stalin that when the Soviet dictator ordered Molotov’s wife exiled to Siberia and called for a vote by the leadership on the issue, Molotov abstained. In his dealing with foreign governments, Molotov never strayed from Stalin’s line, no matter how unreasonable. When confronted with facts, logic or the truth, he might break into a sweat. Usually, though, he just looked like Spicer.

The humiliation of Spicer, apparently ordered to babble lies about crowd size, was highly significant. He chastised the media for “deliberately false reporting” on the size of the inaugural throng. It did not matter that photographs showed that Barack Obama’s inaugurations outdrew Trump’s. Spicer maintained otherwise. He denied the undeniable and insisted on the farcical — and then fled without taking questions. Monday he was back in the briefing room. This time he expanded the inaugural audience to embrace TV and the Internet and re-asserted that “it was the most watched inaugural.” Possibly so. Probably not. But in inaugural crowds, as in other things, size should not matter. It clearly mattered to Trump.

During a briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer accused members of the press on Saturday of “deliberately false” inaugural coverage, adding that “accountability goes both ways.”

Who ordered Spicer to soil his own credibility? This was essentially the question Chuck Todd kept putting to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” Conway, who will tell you that a hissing snake is just a harmless hunk of rope, would not say. She kept deflecting the question and, in a tour de force of Orwellian creativity, defended Spicer’s use of “alternative facts.” Todd was laudably persistent, but really we know the answer to his question: Trump is an unhinged narcissist, and Conway is his mirror. Reality must conform to what he wants.

We now know that Trump’s self-adoration is not a mere personality glitch. It is instead an engine of intimidation, a furiously dominant aspect of his personality, and when it gets challenged, as it was over the weekend, he responds irrationally. He went to the CIA, stood before a wall dedicated to agents and others who have lost their lives in service to the country, and asserted that his beef with the intelligence community was a media concoction — his tweets notwithstanding, including one in which he accused the CIA of using “Nazi” tactics. He then veered into crowd figures, a glaring demonstration of vanity before a wall dedicated to largely anonymous sacrifice.

No one in his inner circle seems to stand up to Trump. No one publicly contradicts him. It took the famous “Access Hollywood” tape for Mike Pence to utter a peep of disquiet, but other than that, this oft-proclaimed heartland Christian has reliably licked the boots of the Manhattan pagan. It is no different with Reince Priebus, the lobotomized soul of the Republican Party. He is now the White House chief of staff, passing papers to Trump in photo ops. Does he ever say, “Mr. President, you’re wrong”? I doubt it.

Trump is a human dust devil, spinning off analogies and references. He is Orwellian, Kafkaesque and always chillingly demagogic. He vilifies the press as Hitler and others once vilified Jews — mysterious, powerful, deceitful, unpatriotic. He looks to his schoolboy past for an American future — a tall country in a world otherwise flattened by World War II — and he blames the relative decline not on automation or the inevitable rise of China, but on the indifference and selfishness of the establishment. Like a sleepy child in a creaking house, he imagines boogeymen everywhere.

Finally, we have the Stalinist apparition of Sean Spicer, running through his several paragraphs of deceit Saturday like a hostage fearing for his life — or Molotov remembering that his wife, whom he adored, was in Stalin’s gulag. What does a press secretary have but his own credibility? Richard Nixon over time shredded Ronald Ziegler of his, but Nixon’s lies were for a time unprovable. Not so Trump’s. He stood before the wall of the fallen and said his differences with the CIA were concocted by the media. He lied about that, then lied about the turnout for his inaugural address, and then shoved Spicer out into the briefing room to lie about the lies. Trump wants to destroy his enemies. First, though, he’ll destroy his friends.

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