Not “History,” But Observation

I’ve no wish to be a doom-sayer. And I am neither easily frightened nor am I paranoid. Yet I am deeply, profoundly troubled by trump’s latest move against the press.

With so much attention being focussed on an ailing stock market and an increasing concern about the Corona Virus, it is easy to lose sight of the utterly chilling fact that president trump has opened a lawsuit against an organ of the press; in filing suit against the New York Times, we see the unprecedented spectacle of a sitting president actively attempting to silence critics in the media through intimidation via the courts.

Despite years of blustering threats of suits, trump rarely makes any follow-through on suing the media, and with good reason: long before he assumed the presidency, trump was a sufficiently public figure that the bar for such suits would be extremely high. Heretofore, it would have been a hurdle unthinkable for a sitting president to even attempt. And, in fact, this absurd suit is going to go nowhere. Our courts are not yet completely corrupted; they will uphold the Constitution.

So why has trump pursued this particular suit, and why now?

One might think it is just an attempt to garner free publicity. The media that favor trump will surely find this inane suit a bold and courageous stand against dissenting opinions. Chilling in and of itself, but not unexpected. So publicity could be a motive.

But I fear the motive is more sinister in its end goal. The very act of a sitting president suing a newspaper for libel is so unnatural and so utterly un-American that it has never happened before. Not even Richard Nixon, who had such a contentious relationship with the press throughout his career, contemplated such an unorthodox move toward chilling Freedom of the Press. Yet by taking this step toward the trappings of a tyrant, trump is simply laying groundwork.

Even a year ago, a president who took such a step would have had critics and opposition even from among supporters and Congress members of his own party (back in the days when adherence to an oath to support and defend the Constitution mattered more generally; once upon a time, such oaths were taken so seriously that the wording was specifically crafted to ensure that loyal ex-Confederates could not serve.) But today, trump is testing the waters on all fronts to determine just how imperial he can be before someone, somewhere within the power structure tells him, “Enough!”

It starts as a mere fripperous lawsuit, but it normalizes a president punishing a dissenting press. Soon that “dissenting” press becomes that “dissident” press. The unthinkable of the historic past becomes the plausible for today; the inconceivable of last year becomes the inevitable for 2020. It is not so very great a leap from filing dogging lawsuits intended to intimidate newspaper after newspaper, or chill broadcaster after broadcaster, or silence journalist after journalist, to the next stage: actually criminalizing dissent.

 “But that cannot ever happen here!” people may confidently cry, “This is America!”

But sadly it could. Even now we have seen a vast array of actions that are so utterly unpresidential evolve into the new normal. We have seen sweeping abuses of power that would have greatly constrained or unseated previous administrations pass as if unremarkable. Freedom of the Press, alas, despite being a “God-given” right, is nevertheless fully subject to being revoked by human agency. It starts with previously unimagined suits, but where it ends could very well be a far further descent into the unimaginable.

— Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.
— Edmund Burke

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