We historians are habitually plumbing the past looking for historical context for contemporary problems. Are there patterns in the past that help us understand the chaotic and muddled politics of today? Can history provide some insight on the present?
President Trump’s war on the press, whether denouncing mainstream media as “Fake News” or (temporarily) revoking CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s White House press pass, is unprecedented. It is true that most presidents have had antagonistic relationships with the press, but even though they chafed at the criticism and frequently voiced their irritation with the media, not one of them ever disparaged or denigrated one of the foundational tenets of American democracy: freedom of press. Not one of them ever even insinuated that a free press was the enemy of the people. (A principle that was established in 1735—fifty-four years before the ratification of the Constitution—when John Peter Zenger argued that the duty of a free press was to inform the citizens whenever the governing class was in the pockets of the moneyed interests or swamped in graft and corruption.) Lincoln did not condemn media critics when they accused him of being a “buffoon” or “the original gorilla,” or when they deplored him as being the destroyer of the white race. Lincoln just let it go by. Even Richard Nixon, as his presidency was on the line, claiming he was “not a crook” and hunkering down in the White House against calls for his impeachment, never said the media investigations against him were a “witch hunt” or “bogus.” He fought for his political life, but he did not attack the fourth branch as “fake,” or as the “enemy of the people.”
Trump’s denunciation of the free press is only part of the story undermining the norms of democracy. He relishes humiliating not only his political enemies, but even members of his own party, even members of his own administration who criticize any aspect of his policies or conduct. Witness the way he turned on Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, Jeff Sessions, and his lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen the moment he perceived them as disloyal to him. Witness the humiliating comments he hurled at the defeated congressional Republicans who did not embrace him during the midterm election. Witness his condemnation of Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein and others involved in the Russia investigation.
Recently I came across Aristotle’s analysis of despotism in his treatise Politics: “The characteristic of a tyrant is to distrust his friends, because he knows that all men want to overthrow him, and they above all have the power.” Not only does the tyrannical ruler distrust friends and those closest to him, but anyone with integrity. It is also “characteristic of a tyrant to dislike everyone who has dignity and independence; he wants to be alone in his glory, but anyone who claims a like dignity or asserts his independence encroaches upon his prerogative, and is hated by him as an enemy to his power.” Aristotle argues that such people are perceived by the despot as threats to his power and his relentless desire for personal glory. Humiliating those individuals thus becomes the tyrant’s most indispensable weapon.
Donald Trump has also mystified Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats, with the way he has cozied up to such anti-democratic autocrats as Kim Jong-un, Rodrigo Duterte, and Mohammed bin Salman, not to speak of the fawning praise he constantly lavishes on Vladimir Putin (who in 2016 did more to undermine American democracy than the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor). Once again Aristotle provides some insight into this behavior. “Another mark of a tyrant is that he likes foreigners better than citizens, . . . and invites them to his table; for the [citizens] are enemies, but the Others enter into no rivalry with him.”
It makes me wonder why, in this time that the president of the United States tells A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, that the press is the “enemy of the people,” and has instead cozied up to Putin, that all Americans, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, every media outlet, every leader of business and finance, and the American people haven’t taken to the streets to defend and protect the democracy that Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Abigail Adams, Judith Sargent Murray, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt so ardently fought for.
In 1952, in the midst of a real “witch hunt” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, courageously stood up for American democracy and censured McCarthy’s anti-democratic attempt to purge legitimate political discourse and debate from the United States. She was deeply committed to her party, and she wished for nothing more than a Republican victory in 1952 after twenty years of Democratic dominance, still she denounced McCarthy in strong words:
a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove . . . disastrous to this nation. . . . I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.
I don’t believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest.
As Americans ponder the incessant attacks on our democratic norms and attempt to ascertain the direction in which the nation is moving in the aftermath of the midterm election it would be well to consider what options there are for preserving and protecting democracy. I can’t help but reflect on the well-known story of Benjamin Franklin and the woman who approached him on the streets of Philadelphia shortly after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. “Well Mr. Franklin,” she purportedly asked, “what sort of government have you created for us?” “A Republic,” he responded, “if you can keep it.”
Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters and the editor of Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century (2016).
The featured image was pulled and modified from Pixabay from user Sambeetarts.