Standing on the brink—the President’s war on the press

The freedom we cherish in America owes a great deal to the symbiotic relationship between “the news”—free-wheeling journalism, warts and all—and an accountable government.


Barring Donald Trump’s impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate, the choice voters will face in the 2020 election is not between this or that political party or set of policies.  It is not between conservative or liberal principles or between the “free market” and “socialism”.  Rather, it’s a choice between two forms of government.  One is accountable to the people, the other is not. 

I know a little about both kinds of systems. During the last two decades of the Cold War, I frequently visited the Soviet Union and spent extended periods of time in Moscow, St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), and Kiev (then part of USSR) on business. The “business” was not business in the strict sense:  I was a sometime college professor and sometime government employee with top secret and SCI security clearances.*   

I had many memorable encounters both official and unofficial.  I recall one individual making the boastful assertion that the USSR had more newspapers than the United States.  “Yes,” I said, “and far, far less news”.   

Which brings me to Trump’s baneful decision to cancel the White House subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post comes at a time when newspapers are fighting for survival.  If the past is prologue, Trump will force the rest of the federal bureaucracy to quit these newspapers—not any two newspapers, mind you, but two that are legendary in the annals of American journalism for standing up to a sitting president facing impeachment.  

The President’s war on the press, his attempt to delegitimize the independent news media as the institutionalized guardian of democracy (the Fourth Estate) started before he was elected, intensified during the first year or so of his presidency, and has reached a fever pitch now that he is facing impeachment in the House; meanwhile, even if the firewall that is the Senate Republican majority protects him, his biggest fear is losing the 2020 election—if enough voters turn against him he might well the first president in history to face criminal charges upon leaving office. 

Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin is not a strategic play or ploy, not a clever attempt to outmaneuver a rival state or make common cause against a common enemy.  Rather, it’s a reflection of who he is, how he thinks, and what he envies—the qualities and tools that are the trademarks of a true political genius.  The boss of the Kremlin has those qualities and tools, don’t you see?

On the campaign trail in 2016, the author of the “Art of the Deal” boasted “I fired many people, especially on ‘The Apprentice’”.  (See, for example, Phillip Bump, “‘Apprentice’ master Trump fired people at a much faster pace than President Trump”, The Washington Post, September 10, 2019.)  Trump clearly patterns his presidency on the same sort of management style: he has fired more White House aides and then any other president in memory.  He does not have all the tools available to Putin—at least not yet—but he has the same character, the same genius-level IQ.

Putin crushed Russia’s independent mass media and has looked the other way as journalists who dare to speak truth to power are murdered.  Putin, of course, is the ruthless Kremlin boss toward whom Donald Trump has been extraordinarily deferential.  Never mind that Putin’s Russia is an adversary by any reasonable accounting.  Meanwhile, Trump and his minions have been inexplicably indifferent to the fate of Ukraine, an ally.  And this is true despite the existential threat Russia poses to Kiev (the forceful annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, among other things). 

In a representative democracy, complacency is the common enemy.  Many—if not most—people including conservatives who are troubled by Donald Trump’s tweets and his “bad boy” antics, simply fail to appreciate the extent of the danger this President’s war on the press poses to civil society.

The freedom we cherish in America owes a great deal to the symbiotic relationship between “the news”—free-wheeling journalism, warts and all—and an accountable government.   

*SCI stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information.  


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