While it’s always tempting to simply ignore the President’s anti-media rants (whether delivered via Twitter or in person, at one of his boisterous MAGA rallies), it’s absolutely critical that America doesn’t become so desensitized to Trump’s inexcusable attacks on journalists that those attacks are allowed to go completely unchecked.
America has no first-hand experience with authoritarianism and because the general populace isn’t predisposed to poring over the history books or otherwise studying how dictatorships take root, there’s a risk of outrage giving way to fatigue among those who sense that something is probably wrong, but lacking any context, assume the country’s institutions are strong enough to withstand daily attacks from a demagogue.
America’s institutions are only as strong as the people who are willing to stand up and defend them and Trump’s disconcerting exchange with New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger and subsequent refusals on the part of administration officials to disavow the President’s contention that the press is “the enemy of the people”, suggest freedom of the press could be in jeopardy.
Here’s the thing: when I say “could be in jeopardy” I mean that literally. Over the past two weeks, Trump has called the press “unpatriotic“, “the most dishonest people you’ll ever meet” and in one particularly inflammatory tweet, told his 55 million followers that reporters are “dangerous, sick” people who “can cause wars”.
Trump has long suggested that he would be open to altering the country’s libel laws to allow him to sue media outlets for bad press. Recall this from January:
While he attempts to spin that as some kind of broader effort to help all Americans who think they may have been defamed, he’s obviously talking primarily about himself and those close to him.
This goes beyond the hypothetical. According to the Washington Post itself, Trump at one point attempted to compel the U.S. Postmaster General to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com in an effort to punish the Post (which is owned by Jeff Bezos) for negative coverage.
On July 22, Trump touted a recent Supreme Court ruling on internet sales tax on the way to suggesting he’s still considering a move to effectively weaponize the Post Office. “Next up is the U.S. Post Office which [Amazon] uses, at a fraction of real cost, as their ‘delivery boy’ for a BIG percentage of their packages”, the President tweeted, before implicitly threatening to bring antitrust action against the company as follows:
In my opinion the Washington Post is nothing more than an expensive (the paper loses a fortune) lobbyist for Amazon. Is it used as protection against antitrust claims which many feel should be brought?
Early last year, a great piece in The Atlantic outlined the path to autocracy in the United States. The reason the article was so jarring wasn’t because it imagined a tyrannical Trump who seizes power and then proceeds to plunge the world into chaos. Rather, the author described how the populace can be pacified without intrusion or disruption. Indeed, that’s often the most effective way to exercise control. Here are a couple of brief excerpts from that piece:
Nobody’s repealed the First Amendment, of course, and Americans remain as free to speak their minds as ever—provided they can stomach seeing their timelines fill up with obscene abuse and angry threats from the pro-Trump troll armies that police Facebook and Twitter. Rather than deal with digital thugs, young people increasingly drift to less political media like Snapchat and Instagram.
Trump-critical media do continue to find elite audiences. Their investigations still win Pulitzer Prizes; their reporters accept invitations to anxious conferences about corruption, digital-journalism standards, the end of nato, and the rise of populist authoritarianism. Yet somehow all of this earnest effort feels less and less relevant to American politics. President Trump communicates with the people directly via his Twitter account, ushering his supporters toward favorable information at Fox News or Breitbart.
Fast forward 16 months from when that article was published and the author’s projection of how the media landscape would change by 2021 (the piece is written from the perspective of someone living in the first days of a theoretical second term for Trump) actually sounds optimistic. It now appears that Trump has succeeded in marshaling support among Republican voters for shutting down critical media outlets.
According to a new Ipsos poll originally shared exclusively with The Daily Beast, 43% of Republicans say Trump “should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Of course when it comes to defining “bad behavior”, it is Trump who would invariably have the last word, if not de jure, then certainly de facto, because the very voters who would support that kind of aggressive curtailment of the media would likely be the same people who are enamored with the President’s anti-press agitprop.
Although Ipsos pitches another statistic from the poll as “somewhat reassuring”, it seems anything but from where I’m sitting. Consider this:
A final statistic is somewhat reassuring, only 13% of Americans agree that “President Trump should close down mainstream news outlets, like CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times.” Here less than a quarter of Republicans (23%) agree along with fewer than one in ten Democrats (8%).
So nearly a quarter of Republicans would support Donald Trump shutting down the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post. Let that sink in.
It goes without saying that Trump is encouraging this. Here’s what he said at a rally in Ohio on Saturday, for instance:
(Trump, at Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio, August 4, 2018)
I’m not entirely sure what makes everyone believe he wouldn’t follow through on his threats to try and either change the libel laws or work through other various avenues (antitrust action against Amazon in order to punish the Washington Post, for instance) to try and bring down traditional media outlets.
While there will invariably be someone who writes in and cites a legal rationale or provides me what they imagine is a definitive list of hurdles too high for Trump to clear when it comes to effectively nullifying press freedom, what I would point out is that thus far, the only check on what Republicans have been willing to acquiesce to is voter opinion. As long as the base is behind Trump, Republicans on Capitol Hill seem more than willing to tolerate even the most grievous affronts to democracy.
As Axios’s Mike Allen wrote last month in the course of explaining why the outrage from the GOP following the Putin summit in Helsinki was so fleeting, the reason “elected Republicans go so silent so quickly when they disagree so strongly with President Trump [is that] they fear it’s political suicide to speak up.”
Consider that in the context of the Ipsos poll. 43% of Republicans already say Trump “should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Ask yourself this question: Would Republicans be willing to let Trump shut down the New York Times if that 43% figure rose to say, 70%?
If you think that’s laughable, you might consider all of the other things this President has done and said over the last year that would have seemed entirely far-fetched had someone told you ahead of time what was coming down the pike.