COMMENT

Here is one thing we learned about the new Trump White House this weekend: It views the institutional role that the news media is supposed to play in our democracy with nothing but total, unbridled contempt.

We may be looking at an unprecedented set of new challenges for the media in covering the new president. What remains to be seen is how it will respond.

The New York Times reports that journalists are deeply alarmed by statements made by Trump's top advisers over the weekend, in which they faulted the media for reporting accurately on his inaugural crowd size. Jeff Mason, the president of the White House Correspondents' Association, is quoted lamenting that the Trump White House must "get started" on a more constructive basis with the media.

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But I fear these journalists are understating the problem. This isn't simply a matter of signalling bad relations. Rather, what Trump and his advisers are doing is explicitly stating their contempt for the press' institutional role as a credo, as an actionable doctrine that will govern not just how it treats the press, but how it treats factual reality itself.

On Sunday, White House communications director Sean Spicer shocked the news media by reading them a prepared statement in which he accused the press of deliberately minimising impressions of Trump crowd sizes, before saying:

"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration - period - both in person and around the globe."

This was absurdly, preposterously false, but then top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended it by saying that Spicer had merely provided "alternative facts". Meanwhile, Trump himself accused the press of lying about his crowds while pointedly noting that he and the media are in a "running war".

All White Houses spin and try to pressure the media to reporting stories their preferred way. But this looks like something considerably more: A concerted effort to erode the core idea that the news media is legitimately playing its role in informing the citizenry.

If the media challenges or factually debunks the fabricated, Trump-aggrandising narrative that is coming out of the Trump White House, it will respond by simply repeating relentlessly that the fabricated story-line is the truth. Needless to say, there cannot be any shared agreement on facts or reality, except on the ones that the Trump White House has validated. This is why the most important thing about Spicer's statement is the word "period". When the Trump White House declares what the truth is, the discussion is over.

This is not a conventional dispute over the facts. It is not about "relations" between the press and the White House. It is about truth and power. The message this is designed to send is that Trump has the power to declare what the truth is, and the news media does not.

The Trump White House is maintaining this posture while telling enormous, demonstrable lies, but no matter - according to the new White House Ministry of Disinformation, the truth is what Donald Trump says it is. Bank on it: This will hold true even when Donald Trump contradicts Donald Trump.

Remember the larger context: For many months during the campaign, Trump not only told lies to a degree that was unprecedented in volume and egregiousness; his staff also mostly refused to engage fact checkers at all when they questioned his claims, showing he felt no obligation whatsoever to back them up. And then, even when they were widely debunked, he simply kept on repeating them. Then, and now, this was, and is, an assertion of the power to declare what the truth is regardless of what is empirically, demonstrably true.

Anyone who is not considering the possibility that this may be an outgrowth of Trump's well-established authoritarian tendencies is missing what may be happening here.

As libertarian writer Jacob Levy has written, Trump may be experimenting with a time-tested tactic, in which leaders "with authoritarian tendencies" will regularly lie in order to get others to internalise his lies, as "a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them".

It is hard to say how deep Trump's authoritarianism runs and how it will have an impact on his presidency. But this is something worth being prepared for. What's more, all of this cannot be disentangled from Trump's unprecedented conflicts of interest and lack of transparency about them. The press is going to dig up all manner of conflicts and potentially corruption, and the White House's gaslighting now lays the groundwork to discredit any such efforts later.

Here's another worrisome thing about all of this. One would hope President Trump has advisers around him who are willing to offer a forceful check on him when he flies off the rails of reality. Some advisers were reportedly worried about Trump's flights of fancy about crowd size and attacks on the media. Needless to say, they did not win out: Two advisers went out there and flatly declared that his reality is impervious to challenge.