Less than 24 hours after US President Barack Obama delivered a powerful, gracious, forward-looking farewell address in Chicago, his successor-in-waiting conducted a power-drunk, vicious, mean-spirited news conference in New York. The contrast could not have been sharper; for all his shortcomings, Obama took his role as president of the world’s largest economy, commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military, and de facto leader of the post-World War II international order seriously. The same cannot be said of Donald Trump.
It would be a fair assessment to say Obama regards the democratic traditions of the American republic as a civil religion; indeed, he used his farewell address—itself a tradition in American politics, started by the first US president—to focus on the challenges that face American democracy. As a wit on Twitter put it, Obama may be the “last pope” of that civil religion.
It is a fair assessment to say Trump would never be described in papal terms; if at all, and if his first news conference since July and his first as president-elect is any guide, the closest Roman term would be “emperor.”
The news conference was astonishing for all the wrong reasons.
Before he came out to meet the reporters, his staff placed dozens of folders, filled with paper, on a table beside the rostrum. During the briefing, the journalists were told that the papers were proof that the billionaire politician had turned over his considerable business interests to his sons. But the folders were never opened. It has since become clear from close-up pictures that the papers were largely blank: unused, creaseless, seemingly taken straight out of newly opened reams. In other words, they were props. And they were props to distract from one of the key disclosures of the news conference: Trump was not going to divest.
Trump also filled the hall with staff or volunteers, whose main job became clear as the briefing progressed. They were there to cheer Trump, and some of them were looking over journalists’ shoulders to read their notes. Suffice it to say that this is not standard practice in the White House, ever since William McKinley made permanent room for the press.
But worse was to come.
While fleetingly acknowledging, for the first time, that the Russian government was responsible for hacking the US elections (an assessment shared by all of the US government’s many intelligence agencies with him), he belittled the supposed and salacious content of the information that the Russians were said to have collected about him, and then attacked the same intelligence community again, blaming them for “maybe” leaking details to reporters. (But he did not answer the question about whether he or his staff maintained contacts with the Russian government during the campaign.)
He also attacked what he called “fake news”—now a catchall term to mean anything a reader or a viewer does not agree with. The irony was not lost on the journalists at the briefing; Trump had launched his political career by peddling fake news about Obama’s alleged Kenyan citizenship or Hillary Clinton’s emails.
He airily, summarily, dismissed a question about when he would release his tax returns, repeating his contention that because he was under audit he could not release them, and then suggesting that he didn’t need to release them at all, that only the media were interested in the issue, and that it didn’t matter anymore, because “I won.”
Not least, he attacked reporters in the briefing, refusing to take questions from Buzzfeed, which had released the raw dossier on Trump mere hours before, as “a failing pile of garbage.” He also got into a shouting match with CNN reporter Jim Acosta; their exchange started with Trump waving Acosta away. “Not you. Your organization’s terrible. I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.” CNN had also just reported on the Russian claims about Trump, but carefully, without publishing the unverified information itself.
In all, it was a display of raw power and deep contempt for democratic traditions—and Trump isn’t even president yet. The United States, since the turn of the 20th century an empire in all but name, may finally be getting an emperor.
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