THERE was a point early in Donald J Trump’s extraordinary press conference on Thursday when it began to look like the US President was channelling Groucho Marx as Rufus T Firefly in Duck Soup.

In one of the many gloriously riotous exchanges in the 1933 Marx Brothers classic, Freedonia’s Minister of Finance approaches President Firefly. “Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.” President Firefly responds: “Clear? Huh. Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report.” And then he said quietly to his aide: “Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.”

President Trump, having roundly criticised almost the entire US political lobby (as well as the BBC), was called out on one of his own little inexactitudes. This was the one in which he said that he had gained the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan. “I was given that information,” he said.

At that point I was half expecting him to paraphrase another Groucho Marx line. “These are my facts, and if you don’t like them … well, I have other other facts.” The Marx brothers would have hated the presidency of Mr Trump. How could their comedy have made an impact when the most powerful person in America seems to spoof the office of president every time he is faced with a microphone and a podium?

Let’s look a little more closely at Mr Trump’s specious electoral college claim. Was he seriously asking us to believe that a senior advisor from his “fine-tuned machine” would have given him information that could be so easily knocked down? Not only was Mr Trump’s claim a fake one it also wasn’t even remotely real. There have been nine presidential elections since Mr Reagan’s re-election and Mr Trump’s margin of victory is the third smallest.

Yet it can be far too easy for liberals to lampoon this most extraordinary of US presidents. After a while, it ceases to be clever and funny and risks becoming merely pompous and intellectually conceited.

Social media these days is replete with amateur comedians all trying to out-do each other in the business of constructing droll, little apercus and observations about Mr Trump’s latest pronouncement.

All of it, I fear, plays into Mr Trump’s overall strategy of portraying the press as smart-ass, liberal scoundrels who disdain blue-collar America, the constituency that sent him to the White House.

The American press, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times, may believe (a little sanctimoniously) that they are raising the standard for free speech and speaking truth to power. They may also believe that, with every damning fact-checking of Mr Trump’s increasingly unhinged speeches, sooner or later the rest of America will get it too.

Even as they are doing so, though, Mr Trump is plotting something more insidious; something which threatens to undermine the undeniable importance of the work that both newspapers are undertaking.

The new president takes every opportunity to criticise the press, chiefly by accusing it of dishonesty and fake news. In doing so he is speaking directly to the industrial, depressed communities that continue to support him. Essentially, he is softening up the big papers and the chief media outlets.

Eventually there will come a time when Mr Trump, having squashed the reputations of the Harvard elites who are widely believed to run the US press, will be able to quote with impunity non-existent sources; make up fake numbers; and claim that union-busting foreigners have taken all of their jobs.

Mr Trump knows that his claim about his margin of victory in the electoral college even now is being accepted as fact in a bar-room debate somewhere in Indiana in a community where sales and online subscriptions to The Washington Post and the New York Times are not high. Ah, we liberals are wont to point out, Mr Trump’s approval figures in the first month of his presidency are the lowest since Richard Nixon’s.

I doubt these will cause The Donald to have many sleepless nights. Despite his claims of vote-rigging, he rests secure in the knowledge that he accessed the White House with around three million votes fewer than his opponent and contrary to the predictions of opinion polls right up until his moment of triumph.

If he lasts the full stretch of even one term it’s the fond belief of the liberal elites that the Republican party will have sustained such grievous damage in the process that it will be virtually unelectable for a generation.

Yet, what if it’s the reputation of the American press that suffers most damage, to the extent that it is simply dismissed by that section of the American electorate that opted for Mr Trump?

Such an outcome will give succour to every reactionary right-wing Republican demagogue who fancies a shot at running the country. “To hell with the facts,” will be the strategy. “Facts are for the Post and the Times that will twist them to suit their liberal agendas. We deal in the truth, and the truth is what we say it is, thanks to Donald J.”

This would be the real tragedy of Mr Trump’s alt-right adventure. The independence and authority of the American press helped bring an end to the Vietnam War. During Watergate, the Post withstood a barrage of officially-sanctioned threats to its future and to the lives of its ace reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein before finally bringing down a crooked president.

The New Yorker has been unstinting in exposing the lies and hypocrisies of several White House administrations over their Middle-East policies and their laissez-faire attitude to torturing opponents.

It’s easy to forget that America is a country that has barely reached adolescence and, as such, is still characterised by that heady mixture of beautiful optimism and quiet savagery. It cannot quite lay claim to be included among the world’s most civilised lands while white juries still sanction the routine executions of black people by its law enforcement agencies and the National Rifle Association still acts as an unelected third force in its culture and politics.

Yet, without the scrutiny of its robust press, it would be more tempestuous still. This is where Mr Trump wants to take us and why he is constantly chipping away at the one estate that might yet arrest him on that wretched journey.

Redemption from the consequences of Mr Trump’s weekly outrages may yet lie with Russia. Just as generations of American schoolchildren think that the Second World War only began when Pearl Harbour was bombed, so there are many others who still believe that “them Commie Russkys” are still intent on dismantling the American way of life.

If it is revealed that Mr Trump sanctioned the conversations Michael Flynn, his fallen National Security advisor, had with Russia before either was in office then he might find it difficult to escape the cries of “traitor”. This is a wild and dangerous time to be an American citizen.