The first month of Donald Trump’s presidency has effectively functioned as an infomercial for why he is an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Trying to figure out one strand of this administration’s insanity to examine is kind of like trying to isolate the carrot pieces in a bowl of vegetable soup. Everything else keeps flooding into your hands.
Nevertheless, I’m going to give it a try. As a journalism professor, I have been especially terrified by Trump’s all-out attack on the press.
To be clear, this is not based on some kind of survival instinct. I’m not sticking up for my “team,” which I know is the lens through which many Trump supporters see politics.
No, the reason I’m terrified by Trump’s sustained attack on journalism is because it as an integral part of Trump’s plan to move toward an authoritarian government that grabs power from the other branches of government. As John McCain said over the weekend, attacking the press is “how dictators get started.”
“As John McCain said over the weekend, attacking the press is 'how dictators get started.'”
As such, Trump is undermining a central tenet of American democracy, which is based on a system of checks and balances that ensures that no one person or body can amass too much power and pose a threat to the freedom of Americans. The president has to sign Congress’s bills, Congress checks the president’s executive power, and the federal courts can overturn legislation and executive actions that violate the Constitution. We all learned this in middle school, although I’m not sure Trump was paying attention. American government is defined by its system of checks and balances.
The press, going back to the time of the formation of the United States, has been viewed as playing an essential role in this balance of power as the “fourth estate,” reporting on the actions of government so that citizens have the knowledge to govern themselves, and exposing wrongdoing when members of the government overstep their power. As Thomas Jefferson famously said:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
So how does journalism’s fourth estate function operate in the Trump universe? Trump is trying to grab power the same way he was elected, via a campaign of fear. Trump has constructed a fake version of the United States, one that resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland found in a science fiction movie. In the face of these threats ― of murderous Islamists and Mexican rapists flooding into the country, of voter fraud, of skyrocketing murder rates in cities, of nonexistent terrorist attacks ― Trump can claim, as he has, that he has virtually unfettered power to protect the country.
In this sense, Trump is actually correct when he calls the press the enemy, as journalists, playing their role as the fourth estate, can report on the facts that conflict with the lies Trump has concocted to create the threats that underlie his claims to exercise unchallenged power. If the American people believe the press, they will push back against Trump’s authoritarian moves.
By delegitimizing the press ― by calling factual reports he doesn’t like “fake news” or claiming the press are bad people out to get him ― he has successfully convinced a portion of the American people that the factual reports coming from journalists that challenge Trump’s constructed reality of alternative facts are not to be believed.
Make no mistake, Trump is attempting to delegitimize every aspect of American democracy outside of the White House. So, rather than say he disagrees with a judge’s ruling on his executive order on immigration, he challenged the legitimacy of the federal court, decrying a “so-called judge.” When a Republican U.S. senator disagreed with the president’s assessment of a problematic raid in Yemen that killed multiple civilians, including children, the president attacked him. Trump has repeatedly made baseless claims of massive voter fraud, calling into question the voting system by which we elect our leaders, which is the basic foundation on which the power to govern rests in a democracy.
And he is doing the same thing with the press, who are the last barrier between freedom and authoritarianism (as this cartoon depicts) and the ones that can debunk his invented threats from which he is seeking to consolidate nondemocratic power. (It is shocking to consider that Politifact has found 69 percent of Trump’s examined statements to be “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire,” while only 16 percent of the statements qualified as “true “ or “mostly true.” The remaining 15 percent were judged “half true.”)
In this way, Trump’s attacks on journalistic outlets like CNN and the New York Times are nothing like his disputes with businesses like Nordstrom. Nordstrom might have taken some dollars out of his family’s pockets, but CNN and the New York Times can publicize the facts that conflict with Trump’s constructed alternative facts reality.
The important thing to remember is, this is not politics as usual. This is something new, at least in recent history. During times of intense partisanship, George W. Bush and Barack Obama took actions that angered political opponents. But when these presidents lost in court, they didn’t attack the legitimacy of the court. They expressed disappointment and vowed to fight on through democratic practices.
What Trump is doing marks a major change in the basic approach to governing. Trump isn’t engaged in partisan fighting. This is not a dirty, all-out political battle between Democrats and Republicans, like we’ve seen for, at the very least, the last 20 years.
No, this president is taking the same steps authoritarian regimes around the world have engaged in to consolidate power.
Which brings us right back to journalism. After all, if Trump lies, the press can easily report on the lies, relaying what was said and how the statements depart from established fact. The press can play its role as the fourth estate.
However, if Trump delegitimizes the news media, if he calls factual journalism he disagrees with “fake news,” if he and his administration claim journalists are the “opposition party,” if he convinces his supporters that nothing the news media says about him is true, he can nullify the press’s role in American democracy. He can shape his own reality, in which he can do no wrong, and in which he is protecting American from the threats they should fear.
Trump’s moves have not come out of nowhere. Republicans have played with these concepts for years as a way of motivating their base. They called judges unpatriotic “activist judges,” they called journalists the biased “liberal media,” and they made voter fraud claims they knew were false to engage in voter suppression of Democratic voters.
The Republicans were playing a dangerous political game, but it was mostly a game. Trump has now taken the game and turned it into an actual governing philosophy. And his supporters, who didn’t know the Republicans were playing a game, are now primed and ready to believe that America is a failing wasteland under attack from outsiders, and Trump is the only one who can save us by being a “strong” ― code word for nondemocratic authoritarian ― leader.
Trump wants you to be afraid. And he’s right, but what you should be afraid of is him.
History tells us we have to fight back against authoritarian impulses. After the U.S. entered World War I, Woodrow Wilson and Congress used the conflict to take away the rights of Americans. As historian Stephen Vaughn wrote:
“[I]n the United States during 1917-18 nearly every right guaranteed under the Constitution was either abridged or nullified, especially freedom of the press and freedom of speech.”
That was only 100 years ago.
More recently, in 1931, the president of Columbia University said in a public speech that there are two ways to choose leaders: elections and dictatorship, and dictatorship
appears to bring into authority and power men of far greater intelligence, far stronger character and far more courage than does the system of election.
Fortunately, World War II showed the value of democracy over authoritarianism.
So it’s time for all Americans who believe in democracy ― Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives ― to speak out against Trump’s attack on journalism. Republicans who think they can use Trump to enact their long-sought-after policy victories are putting ideology before country.
Tell your elected officials they have to stand on the side of democracy. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Opposing authoritarianism should be one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
If people speak out, our free press will be there to accurately and fairly write all about it. And journalists will be able to investigate the rest of the troubling words and actions of the Trump administration. At least for now. With Trump as president, the future of journalism ― and our democracy ― is about as clear as vegetable soup. And that should terrify every American.