The True Cost of Trumpism

I was reading a column by Max Boot in The Washington Post a day or two ago about Trump’s decisions regarding the Middle East, and the damage he is causing to our alliances, when one sentence jumped out at me:

“It’s dangerous to have a president who truly does not know what he is talking about.”

We can sugar-coat issues and say that Trump is merely playing to his base, which is partly true, but the bottom line is that Mr. Boot is right … Trump does not know what he’s talking about and it is dangerous … very dangerous.

Freedom House is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.  The organization’s annual Freedom in the World report, which assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties, is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists, and policymakers.  The latest annual report was released on Tuesday, February 5th, and I think it’s important that we think about what it says.  The report is too long for me to replicate here, but I would urge you to read some of it, at least the section on the U.S. — The Struggle Comes Home:  Attacks on Democracy in the United States.  Meanwhile, I have included some of the most relevant points.  All highlighting is my own.

Freedom report

At the midpoint of his term, however, there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.

So far, America’s institutions have largely honored this deeply democratic sentiment. The resilience of the judiciary, the press corps, an energetic civil society, the political opposition, and other guardrails of the constitutional system—as well as some conscientious lawmakers and officeholders from the president’s own party—have checked the chief executive’s worst impulses and mitigated the effects of his administration’s approach.

But the fact that the system has proven durable so far is no guarantee that it will continue to do so. Elsewhere in the world, in places like Hungary, Venezuela, or Turkey, Freedom House has watched as democratic institutions gradually succumbed to sustained pressure from an antidemocratic leadership, often after a halting start. Irresponsible rhetoric can be a first step toward real restrictions on freedom. The United States has already been weakened by declines in the rule of law, the conduct of elections, and safeguards against corruption. The current overall US score puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.US_Democracy_Scoreboard_Resized_FIW2019.jpgWhile not without problems, the United States has enjoyed a strong tradition of respect for the rule of law. President Trump has repeatedly shown disdain for this tradition. Late in 2018, after a federal judge blocked the administration’s plan to consider asylum claims only from those who cross the border at official ports of entry, the president said, “This was an Obama judge. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore.”

As a candidate in 2016, he questioned the impartiality of an American-born judge with a Hispanic surname who presided over a fraud suit filed against “Trump University.” Soon after taking office, he disparaged a federal judge who ruled against his travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries as “this so-called judge.”

The president has since urged the Department of Justice to prosecute his political opponents and critics. He has used his pardon power to reward political and ideological allies and encourage targets of criminal investigations to refuse cooperation with the government. He has expressed contempt for witnesses who are cooperating with law enforcement in cases that could harm his interests and praised those who remain silent.

An array of independent media organizations have continued to produce vigorous coverage of the administration. But the constant vilification of such outlets by President Trump, in an already polarized media environment, is accelerating the breakdown of public confidence in journalism as a legitimate, fact-based check on government power. We have seen in other countries how such practices paved the way to more tangible erosions of press freedom and, in extreme cases, put journalists in physical danger. It would be foolish to assume it could never happen here.

Previous presidents have criticized the press, sometimes bitterly, but none with such relentless hostility for the institution itself. Trump alone has deployed slurs like “enemy of the people,” flirted with the idea that the media are responsible for and perhaps deserving of violence, and defended his own routine falsehoods while accusing journalists of lying with malicious, even treasonous intent.

From the outset of his administration, the president has been willing to ignore obvious conflicts of interest, most prominently with his decision not to divest ownership of his businesses or place them in a blind trust. Instead, he moved them into a revocable trust, managed by his sons, of which he is the sole beneficiary. During his presidency, his businesses have accepted money from foreign lenders, including banks controlled by the Chinese government. Trump has swept aside the norm against nepotism by having his daughter and son-in-law, both seemingly saddled with their own conflicts of interest, serve as senior White House advisers. He also rejected the tradition obliging presidents to release their income tax records.

Trump properties have hosted foreign delegations, business dinners, trade association conferences, and Republican Party fund-raising events, complete with Trump-branded wines and other products, likely arranged in the hope of earning the president’s gratitude. The Washington Post revealed that a month after President Trump’s election, lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia booked hundreds of rooms at Trump International Hotel in the capital. Indeed, a number of foreign and domestic interests allegedly sought to influence the new administration by arranging donations to Trump’s inauguration festivities, which are now under investigation.

The importance of credible elections to the health of a democracy should be self-evident. If citizens believe that the polls are rigged, they will neither take part in the exercise nor accept the legitimacy of those elected.  During the 2018 midterm elections, he suggested without evidence that Democrats were stealing a Senate seat in Arizona and committing fraud in Florida’s senatorial and gubernatorial balloting. He complained that undocumented asylum seekers were invading the country so they could vote for Democrats. He suggested that Democratic voters were returning to the polls in disguise to vote more than once.

At the same time, the administration has shown little interest in addressing genuine and documented threats to the integrity of US elections, including chronic problems like partisan gerrymandering and the fact that balloting is overseen by partisan officials in the states. But the most glaring lapse is the president’s refusal to clearly acknowledge and comprehensively combat Russian and other foreign attempts to meddle in American elections since 2016.

Trump has refused to advocate for America’s democratic values, and he seems to encourage the forces that oppose them. His frequent, fulsome praise for some of the world’s worst dictators reinforces this perception. Particularly striking was his apparent willingness, at a summit in Helsinki, to accept the word of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies in assessing Russia’s actions in the 2016 elections.

Cambodian strongman Hun Sen consolidated one-party rule in sham elections last summer after banning the main opposition party and shutting down independent media. He acknowledged that he and President Trump shared a point of view about journalists, saying, “Donald Trump understands that are an anarchic group.” Poland’s president, whose party has sought to annihilate judicial independence and assert control over the press, similarly thanked Trump for fighting “fake news.” Saudi Arabia’s crown prince almost certainly ordered the assassination of a leading journalistic critic, apparently believing that the action would not rupture relations with the president of the United States. It seems he was correct.

All of these are things we already knew, things we have written of and bemoaned for the past two years.  But, seeing them cited by a respected bipartisan watchdog group as threats to our core principles, as a weakening of our democracy, should give us all renewed reason to sit up and take notice, to keep on fighting against these injustices.  According to the President of Freedom House, Michael Abromowitz …

The grim reality is that Freedom House now ranks the United States well below other large and long-standing democracies, such as France, Germany and Britain.

As Mr. Boot said, It’s dangerous to have a president who truly does not know what he is talking about.”

On Censorship …

Censorship is the suppression of free speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.

Today’s news from The Guardian caused me to start thinking, once again, about Freedom of Press, how important and fragile it is around the globe.  The latest story is not about the repression of a journalist or group of journalists, but rather a respected, independent pollster in Russia.

“Levada Analytical Center (Levada Center) is a Russian non-governmental research organization. The Center regularly conducts sociological research. Levada-Center is one of the largest Russian centers in the field. Polling results and expertise of the Center’s staff appears is broadly covered by national and international media such as Kommersant, Vedomosti, Gazeta.ru, the Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Reuters, BBC Radio, Radio Liberty, and others.”Levada-Center 

On 5 September the Russian Justice Ministry named Levada-Center a “foreign agent” after accusing the NGO of being engaged in “political activity” and receiving funding from abroad.  Why?  Because just two weeks before Russia’s parliamentary elections, Levada published findings of an 8% drop in the approval ratings of the ruling party, United Russia.  The repercussions for Levada-Center?  In the short term, the Levada Centre will have to identify itself as a “foreign agent” when it carries out surveys. In the long term the fear is that government audits, an absence of funding and increased stigma will grind their work to a halt.

After Putin came into power in 2000, he established control over the three main television stations. In 2001 and 2002, he took control of the two biggest television channels. Since then, more and more media outlets have come under his control, as he appoints editors and directors, and meets with them weekly to tell them what events he wants them to cover.

In Turkey, news to the outside has trickled, in part due to the closure by the Turkish government of at least 131 media outlets and the arrests, at last count, of at least 40 journalists, though I believe that number is even higher now.  Erdoğan has used the excuse of the failed coup in July to crack down on every aspect of freedoms of press and speech.

Why does this matter?  Why should we here in the U.S. and other parts of the world care? We must care, friends, because despite all the safeguards built into our laws and Constitutions, it could still happen to us.  A recent (April 2016) report by Freedom House says press freedom suffered throughout the world in 2015, declining to its weakest level in 12 years. “Media freedom declined not just in repressive societies, but also in Europe.  Political leaders in Poland, Serbia and other countries sought greater control over national media,” according to Jennifer Dunham, the director of research for the group’s Freedom of the Press report.

I turn now to the current political climate here in the U.S., as it is what I am most familiar with, and to the one candidate who has consistently badgered the free press for the past fifteen months.  Donald Trump has banned many of the mainstream media outlets from his campaign events, including highly reputable ones, such as The Washington Post, Politico, Univision, The Des Moines Register, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and others.  He has threatened to ban the New York Times.  He has attempted to dictate the camera angles TV reporters use, told his interviewers that basic information like his tax returns is none of their business, confined the press in a metal cage at public events, attacked individual reporters by name, and promised to make it easier to sue reporters.

“With me, they’re not protected, because I’m not like other people…We’re gonna…have people sue you like you never get sued before.” – Donald Trump, February 2016

“The press should be ashamed of themselves … get your head out of your butt.” – Donald Trump, May 2016

“If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%.” – Donald Trump, August 2016

“It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false!” – Donald Trump, August 2016

Today I sit down at my computer every morning and I am able to access news stories from around the world with a single mouse click.  As soon as my computer is turned on, I get live feed from The Guardian, breaking news from the New York Times, der Spiegel, Al Monitor, FiveThirtyEight, and many more.  I will, whether I want to or not, hear everything that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have said and done for the past 24 hours.  And, when I sit down to write, whether it is a rant about Donald Trump, complete with funny cartoons mocking his hair, his small hands and his ugly facial expressions, or an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform, I know that I can write it and publish it without fear of reprisals.

freedom-of-press

I wonder what it will be like next year if Trump manages to win his bid in November.  Will I be begging my European friends to sneak me some real news in encrypted email messages?  Will my internet searches be limited and controlled by the state?  Will all the journalists who dared to try to do their jobs be in prison?  You scoff.  I hear it … you say, “Filosofa’s imagination has run amok again.”  Perhaps so, but are you sure?  Can you promise that what I fear is not but a taste of things to come? Did the people of Poland or Turkey think it couldn’t happen to them?  Did the people of 1930s Germany think it wouldn’t happen to them? Think about it.