Monday, February 20, 2017

The Enemy of the People – the Free Press or Donald Trump?

"If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." Thomas Jefferson to Colonel Yancy, Jan 6 1916
Not too long ago Donald Trump the candidate was boasting about how the press was giving him so much coverage that he didn't have to buy expensive campaign ads. He loved the press in those days. They loved him back. Then the liberal media developed a conscience, unequivocally condemning Trump as a dog's breakfast. Bigoted, sexist, racist, unworthy, unstable, unqualified.

Since his inauguration, they have been on him like an army of red ants. Reporting truthfully. Investigating. Doing their job with journalistic integrity and courage in a way that recalls Watergate. There is nowhere for the president to run, nowhere to hide. His attacks on the press have been constant and well-documented—mostly by himself, as they're executed in his tweets. Lately the current president's attacks on the media have intensified. His message has gone from labeling the press corrupt, fake news to calling it the enemy of the people. (To see his tweets in handwriting that matches his emotional maturity, download Trevor Noah's app.
It has a sinister and familiar ring to it. Initially it was used correctly, to describe Nero who, when Rome fell into ruin, took an expensive vacation and then ignored a revolt. The Senate declared him an enemy of the people. Nero committed suicide to avoid arrest and execution. In 1882 Ibsen wrote a play Enemy of the People, about a doctor who is persecuted for rightly and publicly criticizing the mayor. At first the townspeople are grateful, but they're manipulated and turned against him. Anybody thinking of Hillary Clinton at this point?
The next public figure to use the phrase was Adolph Hitler, allegedly a fan of Ibsen. He twisted it, using it to describe the Jews. His propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote on Nov 16 1941:
"Every Jew is our enemy in this historic struggle, regardless of whether he vegetates in a Polish ghetto or carries on his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg or blows the trumpets of war in New York or Washington. All Jews by virtue of their birth and their race are part of an international conspiracy against National Socialist Germany… Each Jew is a sworn enemy of the people... If someone wears the Jewish star he is an enemy of the people… The Jews are the enemy's agents among us. He who stands by the Jews aids the enemy…"
Stalin and Mao both used the term to describe objectors, some of whom were slaughtered for their courage.

New York national affairs editor Gabriel Sherman had good reason to call the president's latest tweet "full-on dictator speak." Republican Senator John McCain echoed the sentiment, talking to Chuck Todd. 
Reince Priebus' response to the president's tweet was "I think you should take it seriously. I think that the problem we've got is that we're talking about bogus stories like the one in the New York Times, that we've had constant contact with Russian officials. The next day, the Wall Street Journal had a story that the intel community was not giving the president a full intelligence briefing. Both stories grossly inaccurate, overstated, overblown, and it's total garbage."

Shades of Richard Nixon. On the December 1972 tape he's recorded as saying "the press is the enemy of the people." In July 1974 he said that Watergate, "the broadest but the thinnest scandal in American history… would have been a blip [but for the press] who hate my guts with a passion..." In August he resigned.

The current US president should take heed. Fun as it is for him to use the tactics of  Stalin, Mao, Hitler and his propaganda machine and to echo Nixon, those men all met their just deserts for being, like Nero, the true enemy of the people. The thing is, how many people will have to suffer before this US president meets his fate? Trump's attack on the press has been well mixed up with exploitation of fear of Muslims and Mexicans. He's upping that ante every day. His Muslim ban didn't succeed but his message got through to his supporters and now he's planning another executive action to replace it. Again, taking a page out of Hitler's playbook, using Joseph Goebbels as his mouthpiece.
"It is the job of the government to deal with [the Jews]. No one has the right to act on his own, but each has the duty to support the state's measures against the Jews, to defend them with others, and to avoid being misled by any Jewish tricks. The security of the state requires that of us all."
For "Jews" read "Muslims," "Mexicans" and "the press". The truth is that the Roman Senate's use of the phrase enemy of the people was the one we need to revert to. The security of the state requires that the president is held to account. Hopefully the Judiciary and Democratic politicians will continue to fight for all civil rights. But without a free press there is nothing to protect democracy from becoming a dictatorship. Again, to quote Carl Bernstein, 
But the final words go to former President Barack Obama, speaking at his final press conference (the link takes you to the NYT page with the full transcript).

"...You’re not supposed to be fans [or] to be complimentary. You’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure we're accountable to the people who sent us here. 
It goes without saying that essential to [our democracy] is a free press... Our democracy needs you, to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress. And so my hope is that you will continue with the...hard work of getting to the bottom of stories and getting them right and to push those of us in power to be the best version of ourselves and to push this country to be the best version of itself.
I have no doubt that you will do so... I want to thank you all for your extraordinary service to our democracy."