My great-grandfather was a man of few words. I never met him, but I understand he had a thick accent from growing up speaking Yiddish in a shtetl in what is now known as Moldova. The shtetl no longer exists, and neither does the deli my great-grandfather opened in Brooklyn after fleeing to America a hundred years ago.
My great-grandfather also had a thing about TVs. He had never owned one, and my dad assumed that was because he couldn’t spend the money. As a gift, my dad bought my great-grandfather his first television set. But when my father visited him not long after, he noticed something strange had happened to the TV.
It had been unplugged from the wall and covered in a number of blankets. My great-grandfather had been afraid that the Soviet government would use the TV to spy on him.
I wrote this post on a plane two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. Like hundreds of other journalists who will soon be crowding the Capitol, I’ll soon be witness to a made-for-TV spectacle for a made-for-TV president with a following of believers enabled by some of the internet’s worst conspiracy theories. This scares me. On bad days, trying to tell the truth through the same screens that helped elect Trump feels irrelevant. On the worst days, I don’t know how to orient myself in a reality that can appear to change based on whatever Donald Trump feels like reality should be.
Trump’s campaign was boosted by a wave of racist, misogynist conspiracy theories that surfaced and circulated on Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit. The way that the country consumed news—and more importantly, what the news meant—was largely delivered to them by a monetized platform showing personalized online realities based on what a person already believes to be true. The fact that anyone even knew who Donald Trump was when he decided to run for president had everything to do with his status as a reality TV star. And while Trump appears to be proudly ignorant about most of the issues he’s expected to engage with in order to run the country, he’s demonstrated a canny understanding of what plays well on TV.
In October, the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling Donald Trump an unprecedented threat to press freedom. After the election, former White House press secretaries noted that the way Trump treats journalists (and journalism) has no parallel to past presidents. During Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, he angrily refused to call on a CNN reporter because of their well-reported story on an intelligence dossier that claimed the Russians had blackmail fodder on the president-elect.
A week later, the Trump transition team asked CNN to take the extreme action of retracting a story about Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services that was true. The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple noted that the Trump team’s request itself even confirmed the story. Still: “This being the Trump era, this being CNN, this being a hard-nosed story — a huge amount of pressure is now being applied to the 24/7 news network,” he wrote. “In addition to the retraction request from the transition team, two lawyers representing Price have sent a four-page letter to Richard Davis, the network’s executive vice president of news standards and practices.”
Trump’s disdain for journalists and true statements may be new for an American president, but it has happened before. At the time that my great-grandfather fled his shtetl, for example, Czar Nicholas II was using conspiracy theories and “fake news” to consolidate his power and drum up fear. The Okhrana, secret agents for the czar, helped publish a conspiracy theory against Russia’s Jews called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” that claimed to detail a Jewish plot to oppress Christians and control global media and wealth. Aided by the printing press, the “Protocols” were disseminated widely and used to justify hundreds of pogroms that killed thousands of Russian Jews. The area where my great-grandfather lived before he came to the U.S. witnessed some particularly gruesome massacres.
I don’t know much about my great-grandfather’s early life, or what he saw, but I do know that his reason for leaving the country was that he didn’t want to become “cannon fodder for the Bolsheviks or cannon fodder for the czar.” I can only imagine that whatever scared him, even decades after escaping czarist Russia, had something to do with how he felt about TVs later. Trump may be unprecedented in lots of ways, but devaluing truth in order to seize power is not new. Neither is using people’s hunger for information and entertainment against them.
There’s a part of me wishes I could unplug from the inauguration, throw a blanket over my laptop, and hide. But there’s not another America to flee to now. I guess all that’s left to do is to stay and watch.