As the press eases into covering President Trump, however, I have a different worry. Mainstream journalism in this strange era may be freer than the fearful anticipate, but not actually better as the optimists expect. Instead, the press may be tempted toward — and richly rewarded for — a kind of hysterical oppositionalism, a mirroring of Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.
This mirroring is a broad danger, applying to more institutions than the press. Trump comes to power as a destroyer of norms, a flouter of conventions, and everyone will be tempted to join the carnival — to escalate when he escalates, to radicalize whenever he turns authoritarian. The cycle of norm-breaking that began with Robert Bork’s defeated nomination or Newt Gingrich’s ascent (depending on your politics) may escalate on both sides of the aisle. Left-wing protest movements will be tempted more easily toward both absurdity and violence. Deep state institutions will be tempted to become more restive and politicized. Politicians will be tempted, like Marco Rubio talking about Trump’s manhood on the campaign trail, into surrendering their dignity in an effort to be at home in Trumpland…
This pattern peaked (so far) with BuzzFeed’s decision to dump a dossier of completely unverified rumors about Trump’s Russian connections on the internet, with a shrugging, “decide for yourself if it’s true” note accompanying the release. That dossier may well include some dark truths, but the way they were delivered to American news readers was effectively self-discrediting, more likely to help Trump brush aside legitimate allegations than to pin him or his circle to the wall.
The problem is that all of this alarmist journalism, no less than the really fake news churned out by pro-Trump trolls and cynics, has commercial imperatives behind it. There is a large and frightened readership looking for confirmation of its darkest fears in every “unprecedented” (but often, not really) move that Trump and his administration make.