One of the things I love about the conservative movement is its intellectual honesty and principled consistency. This is what sets conservatism apart from the GOP, which seems more than content to let progressives run the show in Washington even when Republicans control Congress and the White House. It’s also the reason that conservative commentators feel freer to level criticism at Republican candidates and the GOP leadership when they believe its warranted. Ever wonder why there was a serious Never Trump effort among many conservatives, while the Democrat establishment just fell in line behind Hillary Clinton? It’s because they couldn’t reconcile supporting Trump with upholding their conservative beliefs. Had the Democrat Party been half as honest, they would have nominated Bernie Sanders. Instead, they picked the Wall Street crony who put her principles up for sale to the highest bidder.
Obviously, Never Trump didn’t work out. Fortunately, for the country, neither did Hillary Clinton–but what we have now is a presidency that has exposed some of the deep fault lines within conservatism. Some leading voices–such as Bill Kristol, who once tweeted that he preferred an unelected Deep State to an elected Trump state–have doubled down on their opposition, and continue to insist that the president can do no right. Still others–Sean Hannity, with his hell-or-high-water defense of the Trump agenda, comes to mind–seem to think that the president can do no wrong. The debate rages on, day in and day out, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Far from showing weakness, however, it really demonstrates the intellectual vitality of the conservative movement.
So when Donald Trump gave a press conference in which he took the mainstream media to task for their coverage of his administration, conservatives naturally stood up and paid close attention. And as is his wont, the president ignited a firestorm when he complained that NBC had falsely reported his demand for a ten-fold increase in America’s stockpile of nuclear weapons:
No, I never discussed increasing it. I want it in perfect shape. That was just fake news by NBC, which gives a lot of fake news, lately. No, I never discuss — I think somebody said I want ten times the nuclear weapons that we have right now. Right now, we have so many nuclear weapons. I want them in perfect condition, perfect shape. That’s the only thing I’ve ever discussed.General Mattis put out a statement, or is putting out a statement, saying that that was fake news — that it was just mentioned that way. And it’s, frankly, disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it.No, I want to have absolutely perfectly maintained — which we are in the process of doing — nuclear force. But when they said I want ten times what we have right now, it’s totally unnecessary. Believe me. Because I know what we have right now.
Guess which part of the quote the media highlighted?
It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.
Of course, it didn’t help much when the president tweeted later:
So the narrative quickly became, “Donald Trump is attacking the First Amendment!” What’s more, a lot of conservatives picked up that ball and ran with it. Senator Ben Sasse, a guy who walks the walk better than almost everyone else in Washington, made his displeasure with the president’s remarks crystal clear:
Kat Timpf from National Review also typifies the response from the right, saying in her column today:
Mr. President: The immense freedom that this country grants to its press is not “disgusting”; it’s beautiful. One of the best things about this country is that our leaders have absolutely no say in our criticism of them, because it’s that freedom that keeps us free. Think about it: Here I am, writing a column criticizing the president, and yet I’m not going to get my head chopped off by the Gestapo! Other countries don’t have that; we do have that, and I’ll never, ever accept its being even slightly diminished . . . and you shouldn’t, either.
Timpf also acknowledges that the press do have a vendetta against Trump and that their reporting on his administration has been riddled with inaccuracies and bias–but in terms of the First Amendment, none of that matters. And she’s absolutely correct about that. A free press also means that they are also free to lie, cheat and propagandize as they see fit, without fear of government interference. When conservatives talk about freedom being messy, this is a prime example–and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But when the media use their positions to advance an agenda other than the truth, the public they are supposed to serve gets the short shrift. Or, as Bill O’Reilly put it:
In this, O’Reilly is also correct. Rights under the Constitution may be absolute, but they do not come without responsibility. The news media, when they push a narrative instead of the facts, are not fulfilling their responsibilities to the public–which is a complete abuse of their rights. Pointing that out does not in any way put one at odds with the First Amendment.
All that being said, however, it seems to me that the storm of criticism is really much ado about nothing–because, as the media does so often, a relevant portion of Trump’s remarks is not being reported. In a follow up question from the same press conference, a reporter asks the president pointedly:
Mr. President, do you think there should be limits on what the press should write?
Donald J. Trump: No, the press should speak more honestly. I mean, I’ve seen tremendously dishonest press. It’s not even a question of distortion, like the question that was just asked before about ten times the nuclear capability. I know the capability that we have, believe me, and it is awesome. It is massive.And so when they make up stories like that, that’s just made up. And the generals will tell you that. And then they have their sources that don’t exist. In my opinion, they don’t exist. They make up the sources. There are no sources.
In this context, a more fair reading of his “frankly” comments would imply that he thought it a shame that the news media allowed their reporters to write blatantly false stories. It would have been far better if he had expressed it that way, because Trump knows very well that the media will report everything he says in the worst possible light. Conservative commentators, though, should know better than to advance the media narrative without question.
Donald Trump is a blunt instrument, and he inflicts real damage because of that. He’s not subtle in the way he expresses himself, and he often embarrasses his office when he goes off-script and says whatever pops in his head. But he’s also not wrong to point out how the media ill serve the public–and it’s not like anyone else in the GOP has the stones to do it. If that means he breaks some of the delicate figurines in the china shop with his bluster, I say it’s worth the price.