H. L. Mencken took a more cynical view in a 1938 luncheon speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Calling the editorial section of The Baltimore Sun (and other papers) “our grandest and gaudiest failure,” a “vestigial organ” that rages and fulminates impotently, Mencken claimed that the column was “so gloomy and foreboding […] that only a reader itching for punishment is ever tempted to read it.” Yet the lead editorial persists as a daily exhortation in hundreds of US cities, even in an era of shrinking circulation, and it still plays an important role as the heart of the news enterprise — perhaps even the seat of civic conscience, if only for those unusually engaged readers who devour dutiful examinations of tax policy or school bond issues. Whether the lead editorial even gets a glance, it still functions as the best thinking of the whole publication, a kind of courtroom verdict rendered by a sober judge.
On April 2 of this year, the Los Angeles Times published an eagle-scream of a lead editorial called “Our Dishonest President.” The column gathered the paper’s best arguments against Donald Trump into a blunt-force package, alleging that his occupation of the White House constituted a virtual national emergency. Yet it made this case in reasoned, muscular prose that resisted the lure of hysteria or overblown accusation. Moreover, the Times’s editorial coverage of Trump continued in a devastating series for the rest of the week.
All the editorial wordage levied against Trump during the 2016 election cycle seemed to have discharged into a black hole. Only two major newspapers endorsed him versus 57 that supported Hillary Clinton, including a few alarmed periodicals in red states that had almost never before urged their readers vote for a Democrat. But the Times post-election series struck a remarkable chord, proving that the solemn, gray newspaper editorial still matters. The first installment received approximately seven million page views, which is about eight times the current Sunday hard-copy circulation of the Times — a highly unusual level of exposure for an opinion piece without an individual author’s celebrity to fuel its spread.
Now Berkeley’s Heyday Books has packaged these pieces together into a slim volume — published on July 4, no less — that stands as a model of bell-clear writing, a convincing denunciation of a bully, a challenge to the nation to reaffirm its founding values, and a call for ordinary citizens to “rise from our slumbers, to shrug off indifference, to stand up and speak out.”
The first editorial lays out three strong reasons to fear Trump, specifically rooted in his disturbing personality rather than his policies: his “shocking lack of respect” for institutions and norms, his “utter lack of regard for truth,” and his “willingness to repeat alt-right conspiracy theories.” These three defects in the man’s temperament are the heart of the Times editors’ argument against him, articulated in more detail as the series progressed through the first week of April. Though almost all of this indictment had been spelled out before, it had never been brought together into one collective, well-aimed punch. One pictures the members of the Times editorial board stewing in their offices deep inside their concrete fortress on Spring Street, watching outrage after outrage pile up, taking careful notes against this national danger, until the pressure grew too great and it all burst forth in this calculated eruption of intellectual fury.
A key plank of their case against Trump is the damage he is likely to do to the hard floor of inarguable fact and data that keeps the nation operating within the same bounds, however passionate our disagreements may be. Trump appears not to know — or care — when he is lying, casually shredding the idea of knowable truth whenever it suits him. “He targets the darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnesses them for his own purposes,” says the Times. “If one of his lies doesn’t work — well, then he lies about that.” This is a cancer that could thrive in the American body politic long after its bringer is gone. Persistent doubts about the credibility of experts or even the veracity of plain-to-see pictures (the size of inauguration crowds being only one example) will eat away at our ability to solve problems or even compromise with one another. When the president stoops to quote the most scurrilous blogger’s conspiracy theory, if it somehow benefits him and discredits his enemies, the hope for a common discourse is finished.
Lying as a communication strategy is a favorite tool of autocrats, as the Times editors show. Certainly it is not unusual for a presidential candidate to make sky-high promises and offer fortune-cookie simplicities. But Trump’s chilling statement, during the Republican National Convention, that “[n]obody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” bore echoes of Mussolini within its fantastical self-regard. The Times editors go on to list the dictatorial tendencies Trump exhibited during the campaign and after his election: attacking judges, questioning the electoral process, calling traditional media with its notions of fairness the “enemy of the American people,” appointing cabinet secretaries who seemed intent on wrecking their own agencies.
In the face of such an assault, it might be tempting for blue-state residents to embrace the doctrine of “states rights,” using their own capitols as citadels of resistance against an overweening Washington. Yet, in the sixth and last entry in the series, “California Fights Back,” the Times urged its readers to reject the lure of a California secession drive. This was a prescient call: since the series ran, the Calexit movement has been revealed as a tool of Russian-backed trolls. Instead, the paper pressed California politicians to cooperate with Trump when necessary, especially on any infrastructure projects he might get around to funding. At the same time, the Times urged citizens to “read, write and protest”: “Attend meetings and speak out honestly to those in power. We must vote. Not just for president, but for school board as well.”
In a city whose mayor was reelected by less than 12 percent of eligible voters, these words should ring as loudly as possible.
There was a time in Los Angeles’s history — particularly in the middle of the 20th century — when the editorial page of the Times seemed to do little except trash labor unions, inveigh against supposed communist threats, praise the local climate, and help politicians friendly to the Chandler family, which had owned the paper after its founder, Harrison Gray Otis, first established it as a frontier booster rag. In the words of David Halberstam, they made the Times synonymous with “the Los Angeles business establishment, the paper of the powerful and the rich,” and a reliable impediment to progressive reforms. But it sobered up, got serious, and became a real national newspaper during the 1960s. While the print-hostile internet era has taken its toll, along with an exodus of some talented staff and a disastrous buyout in 2000 by the Tribune Company, the Times still pulls itself together and rises to the occasion on a regular basis: in its insistence on maintaining a foreign staff and a Washington bureau, in its occasional investigative blockbusters that take aim at hidden social problems, in its first-rate cultural coverage, and in its admirable devotion to the difficult story right outside its front door — the blight of the city’s cruel and unnecessary homeless crisis.
“Our Dishonest President” was a project that should make Los Angeles proud of its hometown paper. While it bolsters the views of those who took the measure of Trump a long time ago, seeing him for the debacle he is, the series was aimed at the squishy middle of the electorate — at those who used to be called, in a less febrile and partisan era, “swing voters.” For those who are leery of Trump but reluctant to pull the fire alarm just yet, this bracing series provides an intelligent, relentless, and persuasive case for collective action. Which is exactly what a good newspaper is supposed to do.
Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and an associate professor of English at Chapman University.