Will President Trump ever stop demonizing journalists and trampling on the First Amendment for petty political purposes?
The answer appears to be no, to the utter detriment of a well-functioning democracy. On the contrary, expect Trump to ramp up his bogus attacks on the mainstream media as election day fast approaches.
As former President Barack Obama recently pointed out during a speech at the Democratic National Convention: “A free press isn’t the enemy, but the way we hold officials accountable.”
Therein lies the rub: Unlike any other president in American history, Trump childishly refuses to be held accountable or take responsibility for any of his actions, corruption, lawlessness or other political and personal misdeeds. That is, unless he can distort the truth, or flat out lie, and then boast about it.
The Washington Post reports that Trump has made more than 20,000 “false or misleading claims” as of July 9.
- “The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a whole new genre of Trump’s falsehoods. The category in just a few months has reached nearly 1,000 claims, more than his tax claims combined.”
- “Trump’s false or misleading claims about the impeachment investigation — and the events surrounding it — contributed almost 1,200 entries to the database.”
- “The tsunami of untruths just keeps looming larger and larger. The Fact Checker database has recorded nearly 500 instances in which he has repeated a variation of the same claim at least three times.”
Trump’s incessant infidelity to truth-telling just proves he’s a failed and disgraced president because no other president in history has lied to the American people with such intentional malice and recklessness.
The result of Trump’s litany of lies is troubling. American democracy continues to carry on in crisis mode due to Trump’s tyrannical temperament. Our First Amendment freedoms are being jeopardized by the liar-in-chief’s suppression of free speech and freedom of the press. This is a dangerous game for the president to play against the sacred principles of the U.S. Constitution.
Trump previously lost a court case in which he silenced social media critics for expressing their viewpoints on his official Twitter account, raising the legal issues of violating the sacred First Amendment protection of free speech.
As I previously wrote, The Trump Twitter case is significant because it tests the boundaries of free speech on social media by government officials, including the American President, and the impact on private citizens who voice differing political opinions.
Trump takes maniacal pleasure in demonizing journalists as “the enemy of the American people.” And, in so doing, he continues to chip away at an integral aspect of a strong democratic society as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
Trump’s hostile rhetoric toward journalists has historically been used by dictators and despots who aim to silence or shut down the media. But an American president who regularly resorts to such vitriol is sounding a dog whistle for violence against reporters by labeling them as enemies of the state. This phenomenon has previously been observed at Trump rallies when the tweeter-in-chief incites crowds into a frenzy against reporters covering the event.
Any U.S. president who perpetually attacks a free and independent press in such a vicious manner is himself an enemy of the norms and moral values that form the fabric of American democracy — in other words, Trump is the real enemy of the people. Mr. President, let’s be clear: the mainstream media is not “the enemy of the people” — far from it. The real enemy of the people is YOU, sir! Journalism does not warrant such a dubious distinction and never has throughout history, including before and after America declared independence in 1776.
No president in history other than Trump has excoriated the news media to the extent he has on a daily basis. No other president in history, not even Nixon, has shown so much contempt for the institution of American journalism, which is a vital pillar of democracy.
A free and independent press serves as part of a healthy, vibrant democracy. The news media serves as a vital check on tyranny and corruption in government from the Oval Office to your neighborhood Postal Office.
The Big Lie Theory
Let’s face it, slamming the press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” is code language for would-be dictators. It signifies that Trump yearns to govern the USA like Vladimir Putin rules Russia, or how Kim Jong-un runs North Korea — that being with an iron fist. But this is not the American way. This is not democracy. This is not right.
In addition to being dangerous to democratic governance, it’s pathetic that Trump has such a fragile ego and insecurity complex. He simply can’t withstand any scrutiny or criticism whatsoever. That’s why, more often than not, Trump lashes out at the media like a whining child who can’t get his way. The draconian discourse by Trump and his enablers against the institution of journalism is the antithesis of how the government works in a democratic society. This should be highly alarming to all citizens, regardless of political and ideological differences.
A free and independent press is a critical cornerstone of democracy. It connotes that government officials have an inherent responsibility to tell the truth and engage in constructive dialogue with the news media so citizens can obtain the facts, not fiction. How can journalists do their jobs when they are spoon fed lies, half-truths and “alternate facts” on a daily basis?
Trump’s troubling relationship with the truth is eerily reminiscent of the Big Lie theory perpetuated by Joseph Goebbels, the German propagandist for the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler. The theory is that the bigger and more pervasive the lie, the more the public perceives it as truth.
How can press freedom flourish when reporters are proactively prevented from obtaining the facts due to distortions and wild claims by Trump and his cronies?
An Ominous History
It’s instructive to recognize that other ruthless regimes throughout history have resorted to the same corrosive phraseology against the media as President Trump has used for years.
Some countries which have weaponized their words against a free and independent press include the former Soviet Union, communist China, Nazi Germany, along with other Marxist and Leninist regimes. This is the language of authoritarianism and totalitarianism to undermine the national interest.
Consider this, according to Wikipedia:
- “The term enemy of the people is a designation for the political or class opponents of the subgroup in power within a larger group.”
- “The term implies that by opposing the ruling subgroup, the enemies in question are acting against the larger group, for example against society as a whole.”
- “It is similar to the notion of enemy of the state. The term originated in Roman times as Latin: hostis publicus, typically translated into English as the public enemy.”
- “The term in its ‘enemy of the people’ form has been used for centuries in literature. Currently this form is mostly used as a reference to Soviet phraseology.”
According to Business Insider, “enemy of the people” has an ominous history:
- “Over the course of the last century, it has been used repeatedly by dictators and autocrats to delegitimize foreign governments, opposition parties, and dissenters.”
- “Though the phrase dates back to Roman times and the reign of Emperor Nero (who was declared an enemy of the people by the Roman Senate), it came into use in the modern period during the French Revolution.”
- “Ennemi du peuple was used to refer to those who disagreed with the new French government during the Reign of Terror, a period during which thousands of revolutionaries were executed by guillotine.”
Trump lives in a parallel universe of propaganda, one in which lies substitute for truth and fiction has replaced facts. But make no mistake, this is not an innocent oversight. Rather, wallowing in the mud of misinformation is a well-calculated communication strategy by Trump to confuse the public until it doesn’t know what to believe. Trump is assisted by his right-wing friends in conservative media, such as Fox News, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller.
Another dark time in American history when we observed anything close to Trump’s long list of lies was the perilous period of McCarthyism in the late 1940s to 1950s when patriotic Americans — mostly Democrats — were accused of being communists by Senator Joe McCarthy.
Enemies of the People
Next time you witness Trump castigating our free and independent press as “the enemy of the people” or “fake news” ask yourself these questions:
- Is this what American democracy and freedom of the press looks like?
- Is this the example the USA wants to showcase to the advanced industrialized world, Third World countries and banana republics alike?
Before answering, consider some other so-called “strong men” who intentionally abused the term “enemy of the people” (or something similar) to mislead the masses by maligning the media or other segments of society:
- China’s former communist leader Mao Zedong said, “Members of society are divided into two major categories: the people and the class enemy.”
- Soviet dictator Vladimir Lenin said in 1917: “All leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court.”
- Nikita Khrushchev said in a 1956 speech to the Soviet Communist Party: “The formula enemy of the people was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”
- Hugo Chavez, the autocrat and disgraced former ruler of Venezuela, once called the media “enemies of the homeland.”
- Former military rulers of Myanmar (Burma) referred to the media as an “enemy of the state.”
- Richard Nixon, the disgraced U.S. president, said in a taped phone conversation with a top military leader: “The press is your enemy…Enemies. Understand that? Because they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”
Here’s how some of Trump’s critics have responded on Twitter when the American president used the same words which were once considered by some as a death sentence:
Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania noted: “Charming that our uneducated President manages to channel the words of Stalin and fails to hear the historical resonance of this phrase.” Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who covered President Nixon’s Watergate scandal said:
The most dangerous ‘enemy of the people’ is presidential lying — always. Attacks on press by Donald Trump more treacherous than Nixon’s.
Watchdog, Not Lapdog
Despite Trump’s reckless media relations, there’s always been tension between our government and a free press. But it’s never been this bad.
The Founding Fathers intended the news media to be a watchdog, not a lapdog, on government malfeasance. This was the case before and after the invention of an advanced printing press during the Industrial Revolution.
For example, during the late 1890s newspapers were accused of “yellow journalism”. In the early 20th century, investigative reporters were dubbed “muckrakers”.
Fast forward to the Watergate era. The Nixon Administration lashed out at the press, castigating the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism”.
The adversarial nature of the government-media relationship is ingrained in the practice of journalism. Yet today there are irreconcilable differences.
While the two institutions have historically traversed a rocky road, we’ve never seen the relationship sink to such devastating lows as those under Trump — lows which are deeply detrimental to democracy.
Ironically, the back and forth, tug-of-war, cat and mouse interaction between the government and media is an inherent aspect of a functionally effective free press in a democratic society. Under Trump, the nature of government-media relations has become abusive and self-defeating to providing accurate and timely information to the public.
Veracity from President Trump and his White House continues to be a rare commodity, which has culminated in these troubling and turbulent times for America.
The fine lines separating truth and lies, fact and fiction, accountability and culpability, have been obscured by Trump to an alarming extent.
In addition to branding the media as the people’s enemy, Trump has gleefully prostituted the term “fake news” over and over like a broken record. This is Trump’s mindless response to legitimate factual reporting for which he simply disagrees or dislikes because it contains the truth.
But Trump does a grave disservice to the public, the presidency and journalism by trying to discount and discredit the sacred First Amendment principle of “freedom of the press” by labeling the media as the enemy.
Despots worldwide have taken Trump’s words as a clarion call to trample transparency on news media and social media.
Authoritarian rulers across the planet view President Trump’s audacious attacks on journalism as a green light to disparage, debase and dismiss any independent media in their own countries— if not shutter it completely under false pretense or even murder journalists to shut them up.
Trump’s constant disdain for truth telling is unseemly and symbolic of a Third World country, not the greatest country in the world.
It has become increasingly clear by now that rules and norms regarding White House veracity with the media and public have been turned upside down and kicked to the curb.
Ask yourself again, who’s the real enemy of the people?
- A free and independent press which is part and parcel of American democracy, as articulated in the Constitution’s First Amendment, or…
- Donald J. Trump, a snake oil salesman and potentially illegitimate president who not only lost the popular vote by millions, but may have won the election only with the helping hand of Russia’s Vladimir Putin?
The answer, like the truth, is self-evident.
An earlier version of this article was previously published on Medium.com.
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