Nothing will please me more than to discover that my analysis and contention that follows is totally off the mark – that “All We have to Fear is Fear Itself".
We’re just into the first weeks of the Trump presidency and there is much to dislike, much to oppose. He has named a cabinet made up largely of ideologues and/or potential conflicts of interest, some clearly unqualified or at least unprepared. He seems intent on undoing much, if not all, of Obama’s legacy. He has moved forward with a controversial travel ban from seven Muslim majority countries, currently being challenged in court. More is clearly to come and Democrats across the land and on the Hill are mobilizing. That’s a good thing, but not risk-free. We Americans have short attention spans. We fatigue easily. However impressive the present momentum, however important the specific issues, it will be hard – no probably impossible – to sustain generalized outrage. Then there is the “crying wolf” syndrome. It will also become less credible if we protest or challenge everything that this administration does. We may not like its executive orders or the replacement of personnel, but other presidents, including Obama, have employed them and have staffed up with their own people. That is what happens with a change in administrations, particularly when an opposing party takes office.
We must, sooner rather than later, set priorities and carefully chose issues. We have to be much less reactive and far more strategic. That’s true for us citizens and also for the press. Donald Trump is no dummy and nothing he does, however seemingly ad hoc or amateurish, isn’t carefully calculated. Those who oppose him, and those whose responsibility it is to monitor his, or any public official’s, actions are still playing into (victims of) his game. Perhaps the best example of this is daily outrage at his tweets. On the simplest level, just reporting these tweets magnifies their importance, expands their audience. On a pragmatic level, readers and viewers will begin to see all tweets as equal and ultimately none to be taken seriously. Reminder, that's exactly what happened during the campaign with disastrous results. The country would be better off if our president stopped tweeting, but equally if the press started to ignore these snippet pronouncements. Sometimes there is power in ignoring. If I were running the media world, I’d place a total moratorium on reporting tweets.
But I’m not an editor nor a journalist – private citizen independent blogger carries no professional credentials. As a citizen, I have choices and so do you. Issues like immigration, women’s health, LGBT rights (what some call identity politics), and so many others go to the core of my being. They dare not be overlooked or taken for granted either in legislatures or, if need be, on the streets. We can’t let up on them, but should remember that unless and until we change the balance of political power at every level, fighting will be an uphill, often losing battle. Hopefully not the long-term war, but the battle. I believe we have a much more immediate and fundamental problem at hand under this Trump presidency. My first concern is about our democracy, not individual issues however important they may be. It’s about who and what we are. The early days of Donald Trump are showing signs that it is our democracy which may be most endangered.
Autocratic governments (I purposefully am not applying the narrow fascist label) are classically characterized by limiting a free press, undermining an independent judiciary, and spreading disinformation. Unmistakable signs of all three are present as Trump’s administration takes hold. Addressing them should, in my view, be our first priority even if it is our sole priority. All the other issues that we care about hang on our democracy, none can be really addressed or our desired outcome achieved, without it.
Since the moment he announced his candidacy, Donald Trump while effectively using the media to his advantage -- playing it like a master -- has systematically sought to criticize or undermine a free, independent and challenging press. He has lashed out at, among others, both CNN and the NY Times; personally gone after individual journalists including some at his supportive FOX News. Indeed, he routinely characterizes those who question him as purveyors of “fake news”. His key aide has referred to as “alternative facts” in an effort to discredit fact-based reporting on the inauguration crowd size. I’ll return to this shortly. Among the ominous signs is the decision of his press secretary to greatly expand the White House press pool to include in it representatives of small fringe ideological organizations. Under the guise of this expansiveness, the administration is suggesting equivalency between seasoned credentialed and well recognized journalism with agenda outlets like Steve Bannon’s Breitbart. More people in the room, the greater the excuse to call on fewer of the mainstream press during questioning. If this isn’t a prime example of more being less, I don’t know what is. It is a blatant cosmetic cover-up aimed at undermining our free press. It’s one piece of a whole, one clear threat to our democracy.
In an echo of his challenge to the impartiality of a Mexican American judge presiding over the Trump University suit, the now president lashed out at a federal jurist’s ruling in the very first legal challenge of his tenure. “The opinion of this “so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country”, he contended “ is ridiculous and will be overturned!” Trump has always lashed out at those who challenged or ruled against him in personal civil matters – of which there have been many – but not with the weight of the presidency. Perhaps, knowing full well that they played a pivotal role in Richard Nixon’s undoing, Trump has decided to go on the early and (hopefully) preemptive defensive. Remember that with him everything, rather than being “just business”, is “very, very” personal. So long as he protects himself, the Separation of Powers and the interests of the Republic be damned. Were this all to have happened much later and many litigations on – be sure with him there will be many – I wouldn’t be so concerned. But this man, who has shown no willingness or ability to change his ways, is likely – even destined – to pursue his challenge to the judiciary, indeed to the rule of law, no matter what. It’s a naked threat to our democracy.
Disinformation whether under the umbrella of “fake news” or straight out propaganda lies impacts both on a free press and rule of law. But, perhaps even more so, it has been the sinister tool of would-be or empowered autocrats. For sure that was true for ruthless 20th century dictators like Hitler and Stalin, but it can also be seen in a wide swath of regimes currently on the scene. In different degrees, leaders like Putin, Erdogan, Sisi, Kim Ung-yong, and Xi Jinping can claim to be active practioners. There are so many examples of untruths (what some of the press now call lies) espoused in the current domestic environment. Whether it’s the biggest crowd ever for an inauguration, the largest movement in history, the “Bowling Green Massacre”, 5,000 murders in Chicago under Obama (3,500 is bad enough), or untold numbers of immigrants pouring into our borders, it’s all of the same false piece. And speaking of inaugurals – I’ve watched many of them live or recorded and read others – when have journalists felt compelled to offer simultaneous fact checking? You’re right, never. That’s what we’ve come too with the utterances of sworn public officials.
Patriotism is a term loosely bandied about by politicians whether on the campaign trail or in office. Sometimes the patriotism of critics is questioned, sadly more commonly by those in power than out. But what is patriotism? While hardly its sum, defending the rule of law, freedom of the press (and speech), and truth telling are high on the list. The journalist who reports the facts or challenges power, the judge who affirms or denies a petition, and the public servant, and indeed of us, who tells the truth are all patriots in a democracy. We can abide no less, allow no middle way, nor compromise on these basics. Perhaps there are some of us, even many of us, who are going through their daily lives and thinking, what does this have to do with me, how is it impacting on my life. Early in February of 2017 that may not be self-evident, but rest assured, if my fears turn out to be only partially true, the repercussions will surely be felt, felt by us all. I truly hope I’m wrong and that all we have to fear is fear itself.
It is on the president, but equally on the other two branches of government and, lest we shirk our own responsibility, on us to prove me wrong. Much is riding on what we’re going to do, how we stand up for real democracy. I think we are up to that task. I certainly hope that assertion turns out to be true.
Chapel Hill, February 12. 80o. Global warming. No fear.