Donald Trump isn’t a lunatic, authoritarian fascist, he just plays one on TV. I hope.
Much as Trump’s brand and persona were shaped in the minds of Americans by a long run of reality TV fame from The Apprentice, Trump’s current run as the host of American Horror Story: White House is defined by his constant war on the media, which hit a new, particularly ugly point yesterday when he elevated his “fake news” complaints to a scream.
Trump swore the most solemn political oath in the American system of government: to uphold the Constitution. Like every other oath Trump has ever sworn, every promise he’s made in business, or his personal life, this one was contingent on his moods, desires, petty rages, and poor impulse control and easily cast aside in pursuit of making the hated media shut its damn mouth.
This isn’t a game. It isn’t just Trump being Trump. It is a new front in his endless attack on a central pillar of our liberties—a free press. If you’re defending this latest affront to our traditions, values, and freedoms, I’d be obliged if you could stop referring to yourself as a conservative, forever. And no, you don’t get the free pass of, “Hey, we’re not taking him literally. It’s just Trump being Trump!”
If you’re defending his bully-boy intimidation today, I want you to promise to shut your mouth and keep it shut on that inevitable day when a leftist statist in the Oval Office decides to try to shut down Fox or Limbaugh or moves in even more sweeping directions to regulate, control, or suppress conservative voices online. If you don’t see the downsides of this future, you’re working with a set of mental predicates that assume there will never be a tough election ahead, and never be a moment when the jackboot is on the other foot.
The media’s flaws are our flaws. The media’s shortcomings are our own. The members of the press may not all look and vote like middle-American conservative evangelicals in red Trumper hats, and that’s OK. It’s not a secret. The frictionless media world we live in today makes it easier than ever to fact-check, argue, debate, and contest biased coverage on all sides. The way to move past bad or biased media is to produce better media, not to engage in state threats.
The press is never perfect, and will never please all sides, but the idea of the leader of the free world revving up his mob to intimidate reporters or to use the awesome power of his office to shut down media outlets would have been repugnant to the Founders.
Trumpism now demands its votaries believe that conservative values and conservative policies are better served by government intimidation, bullying, and restrictions on the rights guaranteed under the Constitution than by the Constitution itself. It’s a sign of how fallen, compromised, and sick the conservative movement has become under this man’s spell. In a small, heartening sign, even some of Trump’s usual clickservative defenders saw this as a bridge too far.
There are still far too many nations in this world that routinely suppress freedom of speech. Does this example from the leader of the allegedly free world make it more likely indigenous media in oppressed states will be more inclined to allow dissent or liberty to flourish? For Trump supporters, I say this: If those are your beliefs, I encourage you to relocate to Turkey, or Egypt, or Venezuela, or North Korea. In those nations, the liberal media know their place and only print what their respective Dear Leaders find pleasing to the eye.
When independent journalism is allowed at all, censorship, spying, and demands that media outlets follow state propaganda templates make it nearly impossible for informed public discourse. Print and broadcast outlets are strictly licensed, controlled, or often owned by the families of leading government officials. Online reporting is subject to intense government monitoring. Harassment, violence, and physical intimation are routine features of the lives of reporters in nations lacking the fundamental press freedoms our Founders wrote into the operating system of the United States.
In those nations, censorship and state control of the media are features of their political landscape. “I can’t believe the media is allowed to write anything they want” is the language of despots, developing-world tyrants, and juntas. For this president to say those words, and to threaten the press, is a stain on the office.
In many ways, this attack on the press and the roaring approval of it from the Trumpentariat illustrates the real divide in American conservatism today. It’s isn’t simply about Trumpism vs. conservatism. It is about statism vs. constitutionalism. It is about a faction of our nation willing to slip into the warm bath of totalitarian language, practice, and politics.
There was a time when the conservative critique of oppressive states was centered on the suppression of speech and of the use of state power to silence critics. Today, conservatives are rushing to embrace Trump’s attacks on NBC and CNN, even many who know better.
Donald Trump’s attacks on the media should be taken both literally and seriously. Given that his accomplishments are trifling, superficial, and largely transitory, his abiding legacy may be a destructive fight that is an affront to our values, our Constitution, and our freedoms.