It’s difficult for me not to see the irony in President Trump calling the news media “the enemy of the American people.” Or his references to fake news, “the failing New York Times,” and so on. Other presidents have had rocky relationships with the press, too. President Jefferson was hounded mercilessly by the press but indicated that if he had to choose between the press and the government he’d pick the press without hesitation. Many commentators throughout history have emphasized the need for a free press in order for democracy to function. Hannah Arendt, the great political philosopher of the 20th Century, warned us about what happens when freedom of the press is curtailed.
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.