Nice to be here. I have spoken to this group a couple of times before, so you’d think I’d be accustomed to it. But the problem is, that while I’m happy to be speaking to the same group, I’m speaking in a different world.
In politics, it seem like everything we thought we knew was wrong, and we’re in a world we don’t recognize. You could say we’re in a new normal – except that while it’s new, you can’t say it’s normal.
In media, it’s a completely different landscape, and might look even more different by the time I’m finished speaking.
A little while ago, President Trump, in the major activity of his presidency – tweeting – complained in passing that there were two different things that James Comey should be in jail for, leaking and nbut ot prosecuting Hillary Clinton.
Now, James Comey is not my favorite person, and there are things I think he’s done wrong – really, really wrong – but I would not say he should be in jail. And due to some oversight, I’m not even president.
James Comey – who is not actually going to jail — pointed out how strange this was.
“This is not some tin pot dictatorship where the leader of the country gets to say, ‘The people I don’t like go to jail …Some tweets this past couple of days that I should be in jail. The president of the United States just said that a private citizen should be jailed. And I think the reaction of most of us was, “Meh, that’s another one of those things.” This is not normal. This is not OK. There’s a danger that we will become numb to it, and we will stop noticing the threats to our norms.”
Can’t say we didn’t see this coming. A vivid memory of the 2016 Republican convention was Gen. Michael Flynn, later to be briefly Trump’s national security advisor, leading a chant of “Lock her up!” less than a year before pleading guilty himself.
The chant, and the theme, reappears in Republican politics.
In West Virginia, unsuccessful Senate primary candidate Don Blankenship ran an ad that says: “We don’t need to investigate our president. We need to arrest Hillary … Lock her up!”
(Blankenship may have a particular insight, since he recently spent a year in federal prison for violations of mining safety laws that led to the death of 29 miners.)
Nearby in Indiana, one GOP Senate candidates has bashed “Crooked Hillary Clinton,” and another said a about the Mueller investigation, “Nothing’s been turned up except that Hillary Clinton is the real guilty party here.”
11 R House members call for criminal referrals about Clinton, Comey, Loretta Lynch, Andrew McCabe, and some Justice Dept. people you’ve never heard of, guilty of lack of prosecution of Clinton, and undue questions about Trump.
New York Rep. Claudia Tenney’s campaign has released a petition email calling for the imprisonment of Comey, Clinton, Loretta Lynch, McCabe. Tenney’s website urges, Sign the petition: Lock her up
The suggestion that opposition to Trump is criminal is not the only assault on dissent. Commenting on D opposition to confirming nominees, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders – the one whose feelings were so hurt at the White House correspondents dinner – declared, “Look, at some point, Democrats have to decide whether they love this country more than they hate this president.”
After Trump complained in a speech that Democrats failed to give sufficient standing ovations at the State of the Union, some listeners yelled “Treason!” and Trump grinned and agreed it was treasonous. Later he insisted he was joking, but noted that Democrats “certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Beyond attacks, Trump offers threatening hints about his opponents. Attacking Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican race, he warned, “Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”
After firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump threatened that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking!”
Last month, denouncing Montana Sen. Jon Tester for revelations about the failed Veterans Department nominee Ronny Jackson, Trump blustered, “I know things about Tester that I could say, too, and if I said them, he’d never be elected again.”
Long before running for president, when Trump was claiming national attention by challenging Obama’s citizenship, he warned, “I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding.” Shortly afterward, Obama released his long-form birth certificate, and Trump’s investigators’ astounding discoveries were never heard of again.
The Washington Post calculated that as president, Trump has offered 3,001 falsehoods. That was last week; the number must be considerably higher now.
It’s clear why the Oxford Dictionaries declared the 2016 Word of the Year to be “Post-Truth.”
But the greater danger is the nature of the dishonesty.
Trump has attacked every part of the legal system, charging that it’s “rigged,” calling it “a joke and a laughingstock.” He has denounced judges and the FBI and his own attorney general, for refusal to do his bidding, which he considers a lack of credibility. When a federal judge blocked an early version of his Muslim ban, Trump called him a “so-called judge.” When the scam that was Trump University went to court – and Trump ended up paying $25 million in penalties – he complained that the federal judge involved had Mexican roots, and couldn’t be fair.
In passing, last month Trump, speaking to a friendly audience in Michigan, asked if there were any Hispanics there, and surfed on the wave of boos. When was the last time a president of the United States joined a crowd in deriding an ethnic group?
Trump has attacked his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for not protecting Trump against investigations, and said he regrets appointing him. He’s said that the Justice Department and the FBI are highly corrupt at the top levels – a charge that he repeats whenever there’s a new revelation about something about his campaign being investigated – and has fired the director and the assistant director of the FBI.
As someone who grew up during the Cold War, it’s a serious adjustment for me to have a president – a Republican president – who thinks the FBI are the bad guys and the Russians are the good guys.
Of course, you might not want to believe any of this, since I produce what the president constantly calls “Fake News,” as he denounces journalists for reporting things that he’d rather people didn’t know. All politicians have problems with the press, but they don’t generally call the press “the enemy of the people,” or tell an audience about the media, “These people, they hate your guts.” Other politicians don’t threaten to change the libel laws so that they can collect a lot of money from newspapers and networks saying things they don’t like. All presidents like some media outlets better than others, but generally they don’t have one outlet functioning as the official state medium, the way the Trump administration operates with Fox News.
This week, the administration hinted that media operations reporting the wrong kind of story might lose their Whiter House accreditation, and not get to listen to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ explanations that what they’re seeing with their own eyes is not actually happening.
Following the recent White House Correspondents dinner, when some people thought comedian Michelle Wolf was too harsh to the administration, Margaret Talev from the organization apologized afterward that “Last night’s program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press.”
As Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, what do you mean “our”?
The combination is overwhelming. To quote, “Today we have a president who continually undermines our most basic institutions, from attacking an independent judiciary and law enforcement agents, to belittling a free press that has been a bedrock of our nation since its founding, to normalizing an invective form of politics while injecting increasing volatility into both our economic and national security, to flirting with the onset of a constitutional crisis caused by his own actions.”
That was not Rachel Maddow. It was David Jolly, a Republican congressman from Florida who was defeated in 2016.
A new book by two Harvard professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, offers an idea of what this all means. It’s called “How Democracies Die,” and it studies places where it’s been happening, such as Venezuela, Hungary and the Philippines. They argue that when an elected leader turns into a strong man, his typical strategy is to delegitimize a society’s other institutions, to say he is the only answer.
So there’s a meaning when a president says that the media, and the courts and law enforcement, and the other party are all corrupt and don’t have good intentions toward the country. And we have a president who told the Republican convention about the country’s situation, “I alone can fix it,” and who answered a question about his slowness in filling jobs, “I’m the only one that matters.”
One hope that we do have is that Trump seems to spend only about half the day being president, and the rest watching Fox News. Say this for Mussolini, he put in the hours.
But Fox News is involved not only in entertaining and validating the president, but in how he got to be president. People talk about Trump being a reality TV president, and you can see the connection. On reality TV, the loudest and most outrageous contestant gets most of the attention and air time, and in the 2016 Republican primaries, it certainly worked that way.
But long before reality TV, for more than two decades, Fox News, and talk radio, have been feeding Republicans a new version of how political talk should work, a political dialogue built on name-calling, lies, conspiracy theories and thinly disguised racism. So it makes perfect sense that when a presidential campaign came along based on those same elements, it found an eager market.
It’s the role of the media to identify and to call out lies, especially lies by government. But at the time when the media is most needed to do that, there is a problem of credibility and resources. When Donald Trump dismisses stories about his administration as FAKE NEWS, a large part of the population, and maybe most Republicans believe him. According to some polls, about half the country believes that the media just make up stories about Trump.
Whatever happens, Trump’s popularity remains high among Republicans. GOP candidates in primaries compete to be the Trumpiest, and few Republicans in Congress are eager to challenge him. During Watergate, some of Richard Nixon’s earliest, sharpest and most decisive critics were Republicans; it’s hard to imagine that happening now.
During Watergate, we saw lots of attacks on the media. But there was still a general belief what the Washington Post, or the New York Times, of CBS News said was probably true. Now Americans not only have their own opinions, they have their own news sources, providing what Kellyanne Conway called “alternative facts.” A conservative getting information from Fox News, and a liberal watching MSNBC, don’t just have different opinions, they live in different worlds, and find it hard to find ways to talk to each other.
And it’s not just TV station. People with different opinions have their own web sites, their own radio, their own Facebook pages, their own Twitter streams. And these are hard to challenge, because fewer people believe the institutions that might challenge them.
This is happening, of course, while the business model of newspapers has been collapsing. Donald Trump dismisses facts he doesn’t like as coming from “The failing New York Times,” and it’s true that unlike some people, the Times doesn’t have a steady stream of Russian money. Newspapers have fewer reporters, fewer editors and fewer pages. And while the Times has 2 million digital subscribers, and the Washington Post is now owned by the man who founded Amazon, many local papers – such as one I can think of – have had it much worse.
There are many fewer people covering the Oregon legislature, fewer people watching local government. There are still a lot of people watching the Trump administration, but when was the last time you saw a story about Metro? They could be shipping half their budget to a bank account in Buenos Aires, and we’d never know.
As I said at the beginning, we’re living in strange and rapidly changing times. Frank Luntz, the Republican communications expert who taught Republicans to say “death tax” instead of “inheritance tax,” and “tax relief” instead of “tax cut,” complained recently, “We are no longer rewarding policy. We are rewarding rhetoric. On a personal level it sickens me.”
It’s a hard time to be a newspapers. It’s even getting harder to be a TV station. But it’s a particular hard time to be a citizen, and especially a well-informed citizen. You not only have to know what you believe, but what to believe. You have to ask questions, and question the answers you get.
But it’s never been more important.
It’s going to take some effort to make sure that a book called “How Democracies Die” has examples no closer than Venezuela.
NOTE: This speech was given to Willamette Democratic Women, 5/10/18.