The free press is a central tenet of democracy and of the United States Constitution. Indeed, a media free from party control, propaganda, and suppression is one of the most important roadblocks to the erosion of democracy. Thus, it comes as no surprise that one of the warning signs of democratic backsliding is the disparagement and oppression of media, through traditional or non-traditional methods. In the United States, President Trump has a long-standing record of attempting to discredit the news outlets which criticize him and his administration, the latest and perhaps most extreme example of this being his promotion of the Fake News Awards. This trend is cause for some alarm about the state of our democracy.
On January 17, 2018, Donald Trump tweeted a link to the “The Highly Anticipated 2017 Fake News Awards,” a link that leads to a GOP.com webpage containing a list of allegedly false reports about Trump. The article, which includes no sources or evidence to counter the so-called “fake news,” begins with the uncited proclamation that more than 90% of media coverage of Donald Trump is negative, and ends with an unsourced list of ten victories of the Trump administration. The creation and promotion of this list is reflective of a dangerous Trumpian trend: praising those media outlets which choose to support Trump while heavily disparaging and discrediting those who oppose him.
This trend is dangerous and undemocratic. While Trump is not limiting the media by seizing legal control or putting journalists in jail in the way that a totalitarian regime might, his comments are polarizing and propagandizing. The creation and promotion of “fake news” rhetoric by Trump has troubling implications for the state of our democracy. While the “Fake News Awards” alone are not sufficient evidence of a deteriorating democracy, Trump’s long-standing tradition of criticizing media that has previously been thought of as nonpartisan is part of a larger picture.
Attacking media is a cornerstone of democratic backsliding; take, for example, Poland, in which the Law and Justice Party seized legal, state-led control of the media, or Zambia, in which opposition media was shut down for not paying taxes. These examples are, of course, far more extreme than Trump’s “Fake News Awards,” but they are evidence as to how people in power who wish to stay in power, and especially those who wish to erode democracy in order to do so, will attack media that opposes them. Thus, we cannot and should not take the President’s repeated and unrelenting disparagement of those who oppose him lightly.
At a time like this, public trust in free media is incredibly important. Today in America, we are seeing some of the most extreme party polarization that we have in modern years, and the 2016 Presidential Election has pulled off the curtain that has cloaked many of the deeply entrenched resentments Americans hold. Polarization can be dangerous for democracy, as people who are unwilling to compromise, on both sides of the aisle, will often lose the desire to pursue facts, debate, and even associate with the opposition. According to Juan Linz, the polarization of opinions can precipitate or cause democratic erosion. Add to this environment a leader who weakens unity through disparagement of media, and we have the potential for democratic backsliding. As Hannah Arendt proposes, this leads to a gap between facts and the fantasy world created by the aforementioned leader. At an extreme, when factual truths are eroded or corrupted, the public can be left disoriented and ripe for authoritarian rule.
Trump’s denouncement of mainstream media as fake and biased is polarizing because so many of his supporters believe what he says. If we have millions of people believing that they can’t trust the media, we also have millions of people who are willing to believe that Trump is the only trustworthy, reliable source of news – millions of people who are willing to support him as the only leader who can save them and who only digest media that praises the Trump administration. This is an outwardly populist dynamic, as it leads to distrust in the “elites” of government and complete faith in one leader as righteous and representative of the people. Since, as Jan-Wener Müller proposes, populism lives in opposition to liberal democracy, this interaction between Trump and the media is a real threat, even if it is not as extreme as the media-leadership interactions within other eroding democracies.
I am hesitant to say that the “Fake News Awards” necessitate incitement of our immediate panic as a country over the state of our democracy. Trump has issued no formal legal changes or punishments to prevent media outlets from criticizing his administration. However, his constant disparagement of the opposition media and promotion of news outlets which support him as the only reliable sources is deeply troubling. As a country, we should not wait until we see formal legal changes or punishments of opposition media to condemn Trump’s behavior. We should be paying very close attention to the rhetoric and actions of our leadership in the coming years – as the old adage goes, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Featured image: Photo by Jacob Creswick, Creative Commons zero license.