Donald Trump’s recent Fake News Awards may seem like just another harmless jab by Trump to the media that he often taunts, but it is much more than that. To have a sitting president attack his own citizens in such a way is alarming, to say the least. It is a sign of Trump’s true populist nature and the danger it poses to democracy in the United States.
Trump routinely attacks accredited, respected news sources for proliferating “fake news” when they report anything negative amount him and his administration. His Fake News Awards classified media outlets such as CNN, the New York Times, and Newsweek as giving out false information. He gives journalists degrading nicknames on Twitter and refuses these same media outlets access to the White House. He takes any criticism of him as an attack against the country. At the same time, he champions fringe media outlets, like Breitbart News, that give out factually false information and spread racist and prejudice information. This is not the hallmark of a frustrated president, but rather of democratic backsliding.
Trump is undoubtedly a populist. In his book, “What is Populism?“, Jan-Werner Muller describes one of the essential characteristics of populism as being criticism of the elites. Populists also use rhetoric claiming that they and they alone represent the people. Populists pit the pure, innocent, and hardworking everyday people against corrupt elites. Trump has routinely done this by claiming that he represents the ordinary person, the everyday American. He says he is in touch with the needs of Americans and that is why he is in office. His promise to “drain the swamp” of corrupt Washington is another example of this. It is clear that he sees himself as the moral leader of the people. He labels anyone who disagrees with him as being enemies of the common good, as out to ruin the country.
Populists signal that journalists should not report in ways that violate the interests of the people. Thus, Trump takes all attacks on him as attacks against the people. He views media outlets who report on his presidency anything less than positive as an enemy of himself and, thus, the country. However, populists only represent some people, not all the people.
Populists also criticize institutions and blame them for causing the wrong outcome, not taking responsibility themselves. Throughout the primaries, whenever Trump did not win he claimed the system was rigged. He also said if he did not win the election it was because the system was rigged. He did not win the popular vote, so he claims that millions voted illegally with no proof. When in office, populists continue to polarize people. Trump continues to hold campaign-style rallies attacking his enemies. Anyone, Republican or Democrat, who disagrees with him is attacked on Twitter.
Populism distorts the democratic process. It puts one leader as completely representative of all people and morally above everyone else. This is a problem for a few reasons. Populism is a threat to democracy. It seeks to undermine all those who are not the populist leader. Populist leaders tend to become authoritarian leaders. Trump has begun to show characteristics of authoritarian leaders, namely in his treatment of the media.
One of the universal characteristics of authoritarian rulers is the censorship of the media, and this often starts with attacking the credentials of journalists and labeling them as enemies to the good of the state. Authoritarian rulers silence their opponents and seek to make them appear less credible. They are ready to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Trump has routinely characterized the media as his opponents and as tools of his political opponents. He poses them as tools of the political elites. Attacking the news undermines the public sphere. Without a free public sphere, there is no democracy. Trump’s Fake News Awards were a blatant attack on the media. The media’s job is to report the actions of the president, not to be ardent supporters of him. Another symptom of authoritarianism is that facts become irrelevant. Trump routinely lies, even about small things such as having the most watched State of the Union address in history. When the media points out these inaccuracies, he lashes out.
Trump’s Fake News Awards is just one of many attacks on the media that are sign of the beginnings of democratic backsliding in the United States. His clear populist message is a further threat to democracy in the United States. To remedy this, we must maintain free press and not let intimidation of journalists win. Politicians must also listen to Trump’s base – they are angry and frustrated because they have a reason to be. Listening to them and acknowledging their concerns is a way of minimizing Trump’s populist base.
Photo From Associated Press. Creative Commons Zero license.