Donald J. Trump, Silencer of Dissent
In the third Presidential debate, Donald Trump said that the Second Amendment is “under such trauma.” But what about the First Amendment? While much could be said about freedom of religion, here the focus is on freedom of speech and tolerance of dissenting voices – which is an apropos topic for MLK Day.
At his January 11, 2017 press conference, Mr. Trump said, “I have long been a supporter of a free and independent press and I always will be.” So there is nothing more to say, right? Of course, there is actually a lot more to say. There is more to freedom of speech than freedom of the press. And there is much more to say, regarding the press. Concerns had already been raised when Mr. Trump restricted media access during his campaign and earlier in his transition. Meanwhile, during the very same press conference (of January 11), he attacked BuzzFeed and CNN for spreading a report with allegations (which were “unverified,” as BuzzFeed admitted) that were damaging to Mr. Trump, who vehemently denied them. He called BuzzFeed “a failing pile of garbage.” He repeatedly told CNN reporter Jim Acosta to be “quiet” (when the reporter attempted to ask a question), while calling CNN “fake news.” CNN saw it necessary to issue a “response to Trump’s accusations of false reporting” — as CNN pointed to its restraint in not publishing the report’s uncorroborated details, while defending its reporting as “the core of what the First Amendment protects.” There is also a much larger history, both recent and earlier, by which to judge Mr. Trump’s views on freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent.
By now, most of the facts are familiar. It’s just a matter of putting them all together.
• After becoming the President-Elect, Mr. Trump publicly castigated the cast of the Broadway show Hamilton — and actually demanded that the cast “Apologize!” — for a challenging but respectful post-show message to audience member VP-Elect Mike Pence. The cast’s message had not offended Mr. Pence; in fact, when confronted with audience members’ reactions that included boos, Mr. Pence recognized, “that’s what freedom sounds like.” Yet Mr. Trump did not share those sentiments.
His attacks have not been limited to criticisms of entertainers.
• Union leader Chuck Jones criticized Mr. Trump’s exaggeration of facts of the Carrier deal. So Mr. Trump attacked him on Twitter:
Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers. No wonder companies flee country!
Trump’s tweet led to death threats against Mr. Jones.
These attacks are part of a larger message of hostility towards dissenters, which started during his campaign.
• When confronted with a protester at a rally, Trump uttered some memorable words:
“I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks…. I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya.”
He threatens not just fists, but also lawsuits.
• He threatened to sue accusers, who alleged that he had done what he had bragged about doing (on the Access Hollywood tape).
• His lawyer accused the New York Times of libel and defamation for reporting on accusations of Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances on women. The newspaper’s response letter pointed out that Mr. Trump’s threats apparently reflected his (mistaken) view that “the law of this country forces … those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished.” In other words, Mr. Trump’s litigation threats represent an attempt to silence dissenting voices.
The lawsuit threats are part of his larger philosophy.
• He has stated his desire to make it easier for public figures — including politicians — to sue when they are criticized. Here is a statement that he made, during his candidacy:
“One of the things I’m going to do if I win…I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when the New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected…. We’re going to open up libel laws folks, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
If he were to somehow “open up libel laws,” then this would create the larger problem that wealthy businesses and persons could fund expensive litigation against media entities that financially cripples and destroys them – and, if media entities knew this beforehand (particularly, smaller entities that lack funds to defend lawsuits), then this would serve as a deterrent to their criticizing the rich and powerful.
He is comfortable with those who seek to suppress dissent.
His attitudes are deeply-rooted.
• In 1990, he expressed some admiration for the Chinese government’s
response to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — when the Chinese government reportedly killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters. Mr. Trump made the following statement, in a 1990 interview:
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
When this statement was brought up more recently (in a 2016 primary debate), Mr. Trump claimed that his earlier statement “was not endorsing” the Chinese government’s actions. Nonetheless, during the primary debate, he parroted a characterization of the Tiananmen Square protests as a “riot.” That characterization, of course, inherently provides some justification or rationale for the Chinese government’s response. However, the characterization (as a “riot”) has been debunked — which explains the immediate backlash against Mr. Trump’s comments. His mischaracterization of the protests — as a “riot” — was consistent with Mr. Trump’s predisposition against public expressions of dissent.
His media supporters champion a world in which executive power is used to punish political opponents, as retaliation for their taking positions adverse to those holding power: Fox News advocated that Trump seek a criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton (for alleged offenses relating to her email account), as retribution for her participation in Jill Stein’s recount efforts – which, according to Fox News, showed Clinton’s lack of “gratitude” to Trump, for his previous announcement that he did not desire to have her prosecuted.
What about Mr. Trump’s own right of free speech, as an ordinary private citizen? By running for public office and getting elected, he has already ceased to be an ordinary private citizen. No one would argue that a law enforcement officer — who yells, “Hands up!” — is exercising a private citizen’s right of free speech. Similarly, Mr. Trump has engaged in attacks against dissenters, while occupying the position of President-Elect (which is an official role that, among other things, entitles him to the highest-level security briefing, brings Secret Service protection (costing $2m per day), and carries authority to make Cabinet nominations); he represents the Executive Branch of the Federal Government – which falls under the First Amendment’s purview (as noted long ago in an opinion by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black). The Supreme Court has repeatedly expressed the need for the government to avoid deterring freedom of expression — i.e., the Court has recognized the dangers of the government’s casting a “chilling effect on free speech.” Mr. Trump’s executive power will only increase when he takes office (days from now).
What will he do, once he is in office? In a Fox News interview (with Sean Hannity) on January 11, Trump’s close ally Newt Gingrich laid down the gauntlet — as he described “the fight that’s coming” between Trump and the media. Gingrich said that the Trump administration should suspend (above-mentioned) CNN reporter Jim Acosta (from White House access) for 60 days for his inappropriate behavior at the press conference (of January 11). Gingrich advocated such a suspension “just as a signal, frankly, to all the other reporters that there are going to be real limits, and when you get beyond those limits, you ain’t gonna be there.” Gingrich also said that the Trump administration “can close down the elite press.” According to Gingrich, “the White House press corps has this self-importance that the Trump team had better figure out how to break up” — for example, Gingrich suggested that established media personnel could be replaced (in the White House press corps) with out-of-town media members who would be more “courteous” and would not be “adversarial” to Mr. Trump.
Meanwhile, as observed on this website, the Trump administration is seriously considering evicting journalists from the White House press room and relocating them elsewhere — as at least one senior official sees the press as “the opposition party” and “want[s] ‘em out of the building.”
So, are First Amendment freedom of expression rights in danger of coming “under trauma”? If you think so, then perhaps you will find that this statement (from 2012) — which advocates the exercise of the right to protest — has now become timely: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty.” Of course, that statement — whose source might surprise you — hearkens back to Dr. King’s march on Washington, which is an appropriate image for the celebration of MLK Day. Enjoy!