Although he’s a billionaire who hawked expensive filet mignon steaks, Donald Trump’s own food preferences run to McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwiches, Wendy’s hamburgers, and Oreos for desert. He’s also a teetotaler, meaning that a man who can afford to order Dom Pérignon by the case stocks his private jet with Diet Coke. Hey, he’s a man of the people. Who am I to judge? I like a Diet Coke and a Big Mac as much as the next man.
But Trump’s low-brow culinary tastes also apply to his reading habits, and this is more than a matter of personal preference. Apparently, the newspaper of record for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is the National Enquirer. This is a problem.
Astute Trump-watchers had long suspected that The Donald harbored a fetish for supermarket tabloids. Trump confirmed this conjecture last Tuesday, as he was wrapping up the nomination. It was a particularly bad day for Ted Cruz. As the Texas senator was being driven out of the race by losing the Indiana primary, Trump implied that his father was involved with John F. Kennedy’s assassin.
“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald being, you know, shot,” Trump said. “I mean the whole thing is ridiculous. What is this? Right prior to [Kennedy] being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don't even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.”
“Reported,” in this case, is a term of art. The source of this stink bomb was the National Enquirer, which published a grainy photo of an unidentified man standing next to Kennedy’s assassin in August of 1963 in New Orleans. The tabloid identifies the man as Rafael Cruz, apparently based on the fact that they are dark-haired men with similar haircuts. Trump is right that it’s “ridiculous,” albeit not in the way he means.
This isn’t the first time the nation’s best known purveyor of gossip has come to Trump’s aid. Lacking a proper campaign structure, the National Enquirer has served as a kind of unofficial Trump campaign organ. As Cruz emerged as Trump’s last real competitor, the Enquirer published a piece speculating that Cruz had had affairs with five women. It proffered no evidence, although it did provide clues about the wayward ladies’ identities. In a twist, one of them is a Trump spokeswoman. In response, she posed this question on Twitter: “What’s worse? People who actually believe the trash in tabloids, or the ones who know it’s false & spread it anyway?”
Trump’s response was different. “It wasn’t my story—it was about Ted Cruz,” he said when asked whether he was responsible for it. “I have no idea whether it was right or not. They actually have a very good record of being right. But I have absolutely no idea.”
That “very good” standard of accuracy is a relative concept. Perhaps Trump is comparing the National Enquirer’s veracity with his own. Trump is the guy responsible for saying that Cruz has “a double passport,” that African-Americans are responsible for the overwhelming majority of white homicide victims (not even close) and that the Trans-Pacific Partnership was “designed for China to…take advantage of everyone.” China is actually not a party to the treaty.
Throughout the Obama presidency the Enquirer has maintained that the First Couple were about to get divorced, predicted the imminent deaths of any number of celebrities who are still going strong, and accused Bill Cosby of arranging for the murder of his own son. Citing those ever-present anonymous sources, it also wrote that Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, a conspiracy theory peddled by none other than Trump.
Among the prematurely dead, according to the Enquirer, are Hillary Clinton, which feeds into another Enquirer pattern: a suspicious number of its hit-piece victims are Trump rivals. The Enquirer claimed that Marco Rubio was supporting a second family, that Carly Fiorina is a homewrecker, and that surgeon Ben Carson occasionally behaves like an unhinged maniac in the operating room. It re-circulated an old allegation from Trump pal and adviser Roger Stone alleging that Jeb Bush snorted cocaine in the vice president’s home in the Naval Observatory the night his father was elected president.
Nor is the Enquirer content merely to slime Trump’s opponents. The tabloid, owned and operated by a friend of Trump’s named David Pecker, endorsed The Donald, a new role for a supermarket sheet. “Trump Must Be President,” it blared in a headline presumably approved by Dylan Howard, the tabloid’s Australian-born editor. “He will chase down illegal immigrants and toss out the criminals who came streaming through our open borders.”
Partisan journalism has a long history in this country. In 1776, the American colonies had some 50 newspapers, many of them agitating openly for revolution. By the time George Washington completed two terms as president and returned to Mount Vernon, Va., where he died in 1799, this number had quintupled. From the start, they took sides in the country’s political disputes.
America’s two-party system formed more or less organically, and did so in conjunction with newspapers. The “Federalist” party we associate with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams—and the Democrat-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson—were initially identifiable by the names of the newspapers that carried their water.
To be sure, 21st century conservatives view The New York Times in that light, and don’t get liberals started on Fox News, but the party press has been around a very long time. Newspapers fed the passions that led to the Civil War.
“Partisanship was extreme on both sides,” noted Richard Allen Heckman, a historian writing about the 1850s. “Republican and Democratic papers often arrived at opposite conclusions after witnessing the same event.”
“Editors unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes,” added William E. Gienapp in his study of that era’s newspapers. “They sought to convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed.”
The cautionary tale here is that editors of that ilk are not easy to control—in any era. Thomas Jefferson’s personal David Pecker was a dyspeptic newspaperman named James Callender. Prosecuted and jailed under the Sedition Act for his attacks on John Adams, Callender turned on the Sage of Monticello when he didn’t get a job in the Jefferson administration, specifically that of Richmond postmaster. Callender’s bitterness at his former patron manifested itself in scurrilous stories alleging that Jefferson had fathered children with a slave woman.
With that example in mind, I wonder whether, in a Trump administration, we should expect David Pecker—or Roger Stone—as postmaster general. Given The Donald’s colorful personal history, it might be a small price to pay.