Hope in the Age of Trump

I knew America was in serious trouble the day an NPR journalist praised Republican Senator John McCain as being a “profile in courage” just for suggesting that a free press might be a good thing.

McCain had contradicted the president, who had tweeted that the press was the “enemy of the American people.” McCain argued that silencing the press was how dictators got started.

I thought, wow, the bar has never been lower for any Congressional Republican who might seek the legendary status of an American hero. All one had to do is acknowledge the truth, to say what most every U.S. history student learns in public schools: that a free press is a basic feature that supports democracy.

I wondered why other Republicans were not leaping at the opportunity to carve their names in future history books, when all they had to do to be deemed courageous was to speak a simple truth – such as, “A free press is good for democracy, and not “the enemy.”

However, no Republican in Congress seemed willing at the time to contradict Trump on anything, except for John McCain every now and then.

This bizarre tweet about the mainstream press being “the enemy” took me back to my own eleventh grade history class in 1987.  I lived in South Carolina where most everyone I knew was Republican. Although I am a Democrat now, being a Republican was different then. Most of the Republican adults I knew cared about the first amendment, including a free press, and would not have hesitated to say so.

My U.S. history teacher Mr. Howell had urged students to question and challenge him because he believed critical thinking was vital to a free society.

He taught the book 1984 by George Orwell, which introduced me to terms like “double think” and illustrated how politicians and dictators could distort language to control how others thought in order to manipulate them into blind obedience.

He had warned about the fragility of democracy and the need for constant, informed vigilance to preserve it, a vigilance that began with students staying informed while reasoning about and questioning what they had been told by authorities in order to arrive at the truth.

Mr. Howell did not perpetuate silly myths about the virtues of American presidents or founding fathers. He was not afraid to admit that they were only human. He did not confuse patriotism with hero – or leader – worship. He explained the need for checks and balances designed to keep presidents from becoming autocrats, or to keep any one branch of government from seizing too much power. One of those checks was a free press that was able to criticize leaders and tell the truth without government-driven retribution.

At the time all of this was new to me. I had recently changed from a strict Christian school which taught that morality was obedience to authority, and that even certain thoughts were forbidden by God.

My fear of being punished by God for thinking “bad” thoughts had induced a severe depression that had led to me questioning my beliefs until I finally concluded that most of what I had been taught made no sense. My revelation freed me, that it was always okay to think. My depression lifted, leaving me full of new curiosity about the world. I switched to a public school and discovered something called critical thinking.

That is why freedom to criticize authority, embedded in the first amendment and permitted in my history class, resonated so deeply with me. By changing from a strict religious school to a public one I felt like I had moved from a totalitarian state to a free society, represented in microcosm by the classroom of Mr. Howell. I came to see in his teaching style the essence of the American spirit.

When I see modern day Republicans in Congress looking on in silence while Trump attacks the free press as fake news, I remember Mr. Howell and think, “What has happened to the Republican Party?”

Unlike my history teacher, Trump will not tolerate being challenged. He lashes out at the press when they criticize him, the courts when they disagree with him, and his intelligence agencies when they show the slightest sign of…intelligence.

Trump insults intelligence generally when he lies about subjects such as the size of his inauguration crowd, despite contradictory photographs, or his outrageous, unsubstantiated accusation that Obama wiretapped him.

When the mainstream press debunks such baseless claims with clear evidence to the contrary and calls him on his mendacity, he lashes out with personal attacks on journalists, name-calling, and accusations of Fake News.

Trump appears to want total, all- encompassing authority over media so he can control what people think and say about him.

That is why I cringe when pundits suggest that Trump is just giving us a “new” kind of presidency. Trump is not merely “new, “unorthodox” or a “provocateur.” He is steering America in the direction of authoritarianism, and an authoritarian style of leadership is not new; it is historically very old, whereas for the American founders democracy was a new experiment, a departure from the abuses of the old ways.

Living in a country that identifies itself as a democracy has given me certain expectations of political leaders, so ever since Trump was inaugurated, I have been waiting for Trump to say the word democracy in such a way that suggests he approves of it; after six months of hearing him talk, I am not confident he could explain what one is, or why it is a good thing.

I never would have thought I would miss the rhetoric of past presidents waxing lyrical about freedom, speeches which often seemed hollow or cheesy. But I do.

Trump is separating America from deeply held principles of liberty by which it defines itself, principles that reach back into the early history of the nation. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have remained mostly passive.

I am worried about them. I want to say, “What has happened to you? You used to hate Russia more than anything and now you are supporting a president that idolizes a brutal Russian dictator with a Kremlin past? You used to talk about freedom all the time. I mean all the time. Where did that go? Did you never read 1984?”

Despite knowing better, I have always felt that Western autocrats of the past like Stalin who gave rise to 1984 were safely entombed inside the pages of history textbooks.

Blind adulation for authorities who made impossible promises and demonized minorities – those were the Old Days. Americans and other Western Democracies knew better now.

I was wrong to feel so secure.

Most, if not all, politicians lie, but Trump goes further by refusing to defer to an objective standard of reality, one defined by rules of logic and respect for evidence. He says Obama wiretapped him and for Trump that is enough. He makes no effort to explain or supply proof, leaving it to others to make sense of what he means; without meeting others on a common ground of objective reality, rational discourse is impossible. He peddles ambiguity and confusion, such as later claiming that by “wiretapping” he meant surveillance generally, creating the impression that truth is slippery, elusive, and possibly unobtainable.

This matters because authoritarianism takes root in the realm of thought.

The mainstream press is not having it. It calls Trump on his easily disprovable lies and demands proof for his outrageous accusations. It holds him to standards of evidence and reason.  Therefore, he has named the press “the enemy.”

By swinging the power of his presidency like a cudgel to knock down critics, by hurling threats, tirades, and character assaults, Trump is not just changing policy; he is changing our national identity and reshaping it in the image of his own disturbed personality.

My hope lies in knowing that the face Trump is presenting to the world is not the true face of America; it is a mask, and there is a lot of resistance going on behind it.

Despite his unflinching supporter base of 38 per cent, opposition to his leadership has been robust overall. Activism is on the rise. The feminist movement has become super-charged due to his overt misogyny. Law suits threaten his xenophobic policies.

However it may appear to the world, America is not Trump. America is the people who live here and most of us know something is wrong, terribly wrong.

However, I must admit: If I have ever taken for granted the institutions that support democracy such as a free press and an independent judiciary, I never will again because through Trump, I have glimpsed the abusive alternative.

The hidden gold of the Trump presidency is that I am more engaged with how government works than I have ever been.  In the weeks following his inauguration I learned everything I could about the limits and scope of presidential power.

Boring textbook concepts like checks and balances scintillate with new meaning and flicker to life when faced with a real threat. And Donald Trump is.

Maybe someday the Republicans in Congress will see that. Maybe they will see that his abusive governing style is an attack on the country they have long promised to defend.

Maybe they will recover from their moral amnesia and remember how their party used to care about things like education and defending the Bill of Rights.

Maybe even a lone Republican (other than McCain), a dauntless Chosen One, will separate from the Pack and aspire to easy heroism by firmly and consistently raising his voice above that of Trump to say, “A free press is not the enemy of the people. In fact, it is kind of a useful thing for a democracy to have. And democracy, well, maybe that is not such a bad thing either. Maybe it is even sort of, kind of good.”

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4 thoughts on “Hope in the Age of Trump

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    However, I am not convinced it is possible to have a completely neutral press, or that it has to be neutral to be useful.

    The media is run by people, and people are prone to bias. Even the most objectivelywritten news is biased according to what information is included or omitted.

    Though the press may be more politically polarized than usual, spin is nothing new. Newsweek has always been left-leaning, the National Review right-leaning. That has always been okay with me. I am comfortable with a clash of opinions. It is up to me as a reader to distinguish fact from opinion. A free press that has to be neutral to exist would not be a free press at all.

    Besides, facts are more interesting when presented with a point of view even if I am strongly out of sympathy with it. I worry far less about “spin” than I do a waning interest in critical thinking.

  2. I agree with you, Lisa. Absolute objectivity (or neutrality) is an illusion. We as observers always interact with what we observe. We cannot help it. But as you suggest, knowing the leanings of the publication you’re reading can help you make sense of their perspective, even while it challenges your own.

    I share your concern with respect to critical thinking. It is impossible to imagine a Donald Trump as president, 20 years ago. The thing I find most disturbing about his presidency is not the man or his abysmal lack of preparedness for the responsibilities of stewardship. It is what his election says about us…

    • So well said Dirk! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I also worry about what Trump’s election says about us. I worry, too, about how much our society must have changed to make his election possible without my being aware of it. My head is still spinning…

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