President Trump and Typhoid Mary: When Lies Become Epidemic

By In the National Interest Archives
Cover image for  article: President Trump and Typhoid Mary:  When Lies Become Epidemic

(Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia and the CIA's Director of Public Affairs.)  With his 2020 election campaign officially in gear, President Trump is attacking opponents on all fronts, escalating his disregard for facts, truth and political values.  Like the latest measles cases, his demagoguery -- last month Trump leveled a treason charge against The New York Times and threatened a Time reporter with jail -- is most often a one-day story.  It shouldn't be.  Parroted by party sycophants and right-wing propagandists and echo chambers, Trump's authoritarian outbursts are epidemic.  It's time the media industry treated them that way.

Doctors and nurses aren't the usual practitioners to offer political cures, but their approach to the measles is worth considering.  The medics are not only fighting the outbreak case by case; they're also refuting the bogus science peddled by the anti-vaccination movement responsible for its spread.  Their version of "Public Health 101" fits what ails the body politic.  After all, just like the measles virus spreading coast-to-coast, Trump's disregard for democratic values needs a response that targets its cause as well as effects.  The Ad Council, an organization with a long history of valuable public service campaigns, is ideally suited to help deliver what citizens need to know about their democratic process and the respect that it's due.  (See the announcement about the appointment of Facebook's David Fischer to Chairman of the Ad Council.)

That Trump's presidential behavior is bizarre isn't worth debating.  With imperial assertions of executive privilege and orders calling off attacks only seconds after their launch, Trump is offering a comedy impersonation of Napoleon without the horse.  Add to that mocking Congress and the courts, both co-equal government branches under the Constitution he is sworn to uphold; attacking the press, whose freedom is enshrined in its First Amendment, and in a nation of laws asserting he stands above them.  All debase the presidency in language a banana republic boss would adore while demonstrating he holds the office's obligations in contempt.

The fact Trump's authoritarian bluster doesn't stop at the water's edge only underscores the point.  In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the consequences of his grandstanding are taking their toll.  From spastic threats of war against Iran and tariff tantrums aimed at virtually every country in sight to affections lavished on his latest authoritarian-of-choice, Trump's Il Duce performance has not only tanked American standing and credibility -- it is also raising the risks of conflict as well as damaging U.S. relationships, influence and interests around the world.

The strongman strutting also is intensifying social as well as political divisions at home.  Like threatening nuclear attacks or publicly trashing historic allies, Trump's bombast over border walls, immigration roundups and government shutdowns is fueling contention.  Americans have noticed.  The Pew Research Center's latest poll shows 55 percent blame Trump for the country's noxious politics.  As for Trump's effects on them, overwhelming majorities in the Pew survey cite him as their leading source of confusion, embarrassment and concern. 

That said, there's no question many Americans remain susceptible to Trump's Caudillo-like performance.  Take his recent statement that he was willing to entertain election help from a foreign power.  As presidential declarations as well as potentially illegal acts go, even for Trump the remark hits a new low.  Given that many Americans have a scanty knowledge of their own history and civics, however, the comment and others like it are having an impact.  Case in point, his own party.  A recent national poll revealed that only 22 percent of Republicans saw foreign election influence as a problem.

Trump's supporters have every right to their views.  But as NPR's Ron Elving described last month, they would find their opinion ill-grounded if they bothered to look.  For one thing, intelligence and law enforcement leaders, not to mention special counsel Robert Mueller, have warned about Moscow's election interference.  So has the Federal Election Commission, reminding that cozying up to Russians or other foreigners bearing political gifts violates the law.  It's not just Trump's opponents sounding the alarm.  The Founding Fathers did it, as well.

"The desire [of] foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our counsels," Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, was "one of the most deadly adversaries of republican government."  Hamilton had good company in worrying about foreign threats to the new democracy and in devising needed protections.  The Constitution requires a president to be a citizen born in the United States and its emoluments clause prohibits gift-taking in office.  Both make clear not only who the drafters wanted in the presidency but also the standards that the office's occupants should uphold.

Let's stipulate that educating Americans about their democracy -- the Constitution, its separation of powers, and checks and balances -- shouldn't be the media's job.  Unfortunately, a president who daily disregards the country's political values creates the need.  The press is doing its best to deal with Trump's daily prevarications but when it comes to his demagogue's shtick, debunking his remarks one-by-one isn't enough.  Like Typhoid Mary, the Irish cook who spread the typhus bacillus in New York City in the 1900s, Trump's emissions are infectious, reaching well beyond the specific subjects they touch.

The antidote needs to do the same.  That's where the media's ownership needs to step up.  They've done it before.  In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt brought together the media's executive leaders, asking their help in the war effort.  The result became the Ad Council, which produced public service announcements to boost the national cause.  The success of PSAs didn't stop there; from forest fires to drunk driving, PSAs addressing critical national issues have been a media fixture ever since.

Today another president is making clear why public service announcements that can educate voters in democratic fundamentals should be added to the Ad Council's list.   As a product of non-profit organizations that partner with the Council, the announcements depend on corporate good citizens for funding.  With political ad spending in 2020 expected to hit $10 billion, a contribution from the major media outlets about to reap that bonanza shouldn't be too much to ask.

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