Every aspiring autocrat knows that a free press is a major impediment. That’s why Turkey sentenced a Wall Street Journal reporter to two years in prison in absentia this week, on terrorism charges. (Her actual crime seems to be terrifying the Turkish authorities with her brave coverage of clashes between their security forces and Kurdish separatists.)
And that’s why the U.S. State Department called Turkey out, in a statement reiterating that “freedom of expression, including for speech and the media — even speech which some find controversial or uncomfortable — strengthens democracy and needs to be protected.”
This is something we all agree on, or used to. Which is why, only hours later, Americans of all political stripes pushed back at the president of the United States for another of his escalating attacks on the First Amendment.
If undermining our democracy were his goal, it would make sense to cast the press as “scum,” “liars” and “sick people.” It would make sense to insist that “they don't like our country." And even that an independent press is an “enemy of the people,” as Stalin-era Soviet as that sounds.
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If that were his goal, it would follow that he’d argue something along the lines of, “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should want to look into it.” Where’s the KGB when you need them?
It might make strategic sense to threaten to pull FCC licenses, though networks don’t have those: “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
And likewise to grouse that late-night TV hosts should have to give pro-Trump comedians “equal time,” though that’s not how the Fairness Doctrine worked, either.
If that were his goal, it would be in keeping with it to argue that pro football players should lose their jobs for constitutionally-protected protests in expressing opinions he doesn’t share. As it would be to threaten to change libel laws to make it easier to win suits against reporters. Or even to tweet that the Senate Intelligence Committee should be investigating news organizations.
All of this is happening at a time when other democratic institutions are at risk, too. Voting rights are being suppressed, and the integrity of our elections threatened by a foreign adversary. Two U.S. senators, one of them Republican John McCain, have written a letter to Trump, asking about the holdup on implementing sanctions against Russia. Maybe the most endangered of our institutions is the GOP the president and his former aide Steve Bannon seem so intent on dismantling and selling for parts.
Yet large segments of the population discount news about all of these matters, at the urging of a president who also suggested recently that the rising stock market is wiping out the national debt, that health insurance is something you pay into and then cash in during your old age, and that the situation in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico is not as dire as “fake news” may have led you to believe.
The conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru answered Trump’s comment that “it’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” with the tweeted rejoinder that “it is frankly disgusting that the president made this statement.” And Sen. Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican, asked if Trump was “recanting of the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?” Unfortunately, we have every reason to suspect that the answer is yes.