“Democratic Deconsolidation,” Freedom of the Press and the Primacy of Politics

Several astute observers had predicted that President Donald Trump would not long be content to work to undermine the freedom of the press generally as his so-called “enemy of the people,” in an effort to delegitimate any truthful reporting concerning his administration. Instead, he would at some point go further, and begin formally and officially to sanction specific media outlets whose work consistently favored him and his policies, and refuse to accord standing to those newspapers and television networks he perceived as unfriendly. These analysts argued that virtually all previous modern demagogues who had exhibited the same thin-skinned narcissism evident in Trump had eventually turned from attacks on freedom of the press en masse to singling out institutions and denying them access on the grounds that their reporting did not suit the leader. And so, matters have now gone. On February 24, 2017, White House press secretary Sean Spicer held an informal briefing with representatives of the media that specifically barred some of the nation’s leading journalistic organizations from participation, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, CNN and others. The President had personally and, in several cases, repeatedly, attacked each of these institutions during the campaign and now embraced the extraordinary step of denying them access to a White House press event. It is unclear as I write whether this action will become permanent, but in many respects, that hardly matters as Trump has already done enormous damage to a central plank of America’s Constitution and its citizenry’s freedoms with his constant false claims that critical or unflattering reporting of his actions is untrue and those offering such accounts are “liars” and worse.

The question, as ever with Trump, is what is next, and it appears that he will not personally rest until he creates a syncophantic media establishment whose members daily unctuously extoll him and his policies as “superb,” however anti-democratic, cruel or unreflective those may be. The President’s effort to muzzle the press selectively occurred just hours after he appeared at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Oxon Hill, Maryland, at which he had devoted a share of his remarks to criticizing the media, “A few days ago, I called the fake news media the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.”[1]

This statement is, prima facie, both flatly not true and deeply dangerous, and that threat was symbolically manifest in the effort to control access to information at the White House. The news organizations targeted reacted with appropriate expressions of concern. As New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet observed,

Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties. We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest. [2]

This step by the Trump administration to bar White House press access for organizations it dislikes represents another action apparently aimed at encouraging his supporters to countenance the curtailing of free speech as a means of furthering the rule of their “leader.” This is a very slippery slope indeed for a nation nominally devoted to civil liberties and democratic self-governance, for which freedom of the press is absolutely essential.

Trump’s efforts to delegitimize selected media organizations so as to avoid careful reporting of his administration’s actions may be viewed as a continued exploitation of the broader trends that gained him his narrow Electoral College victory. Political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have recently neatly labeled the factors that Trump and right-wing populists in other western nations have employed for the purpose of accruing personal power as, “democratic deconsolidation.” They have argued that Trump’s attacks on democratic norms, civil liberties and the freedom of the press have garnered support among many voters as a result of:

Economic anxiety Ethnic and racial anxiety Growing economic inequality between urban centers and rural hinterlands.[3]

One might add additional factors to this list as it relates to the United States, including the canalization of modern media, the radicalization of the Republican Party and the willingness of its leaders to exacerbate and exploit social divisions to gain and retain power. That Party has coupled these efforts with fifty years of political attacks on democratic self-governance as an unnecessary and usurping aberration that can and should be replaced in so far as feasible by reliance on capitalism and the market for social choices.

Whatever factors one includes in this list, it seems clear that our polity is now at a crossroads, as Trump continues to work to undermine our most cherished norms, freedoms and institutions. He has been able to do so by exploiting the economic anxieties Foa and Mounk and others have catalogued, while garnering substantial popular support by scapegoating and “othering” specific groups and institutions, including journalists and journalism, and promising that belief in him will assuage those fears and yield personal economic benefits.

Put plainly, Trump is increasingly asking Americans to trade their freedom for chimeric promises of individual economic advancement and contentment built on false grandiose assurances and relentless anti-democratic scapegoating. Citizens must resist this Faustian bargain, which undermines civil rights and allows no “truth” except that offered by the leader while ultimately eroding democratic capacity for deliberation, and thereby self-governance. Never in recent memory has the choice for Americans emerged more starkly: Are they passively willing to cede their personal liberties to a demagogue offering lies and censure of targeted groups to allay their economic anxieties? Or, are they willing to roll up their collective sleeves and demand that those they elect behave democratically and transparently and cease attacks on government legitimacy and civil liberties and work instead to develop policies that will address the actual challenges and complexities their society now confronts? In many respects, this scenario is not new in historical terms, as other nations have confronted similar moments. The issue the United States’ present situation raises is, does a majority of its citizens believe any longer in a free and self-governing polity in which they serve as the sovereign? Or are they willing to cede their birth right and sovereignty to fears and false claims?

Trump must not be allowed to pick and choose whose points of view gain public salience or be permitted to lie to Americans with impunity concerning his actions. To allow such behaviors and worse, actively to countenance them, can only result in the continued enervation of freedom and, finally, in a people who have relinquished their rights for chains. The stakes are high indeed, as it seems clear Trump will degrade civil rights and liberties as far as citizens will allow him to do so. We are about to enter a period in which that answer will emerge.

 

Notes  

[1] Callum Borchers, “White House blocks CNN, New York Times from press briefing hours after Trump slams media,” The Washington Post, February 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/24/white-house-blocks-cnn-new-york-times-from-press-briefing-hours-after-trump-slams-media/?utm_term=.53de25bc6d06 Accessed February 24, 2017.

[2] Borchers, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/24/white-house-blocks-cnn-new-york-times-from-press-briefing-hours-after-trump-slams-media/?utm_term=.53de25bc6d06 Accessed February 24, 2017.

[3] Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy, (28, 1), January 2017, 5-15.