President Trump has a well-documented, antagonistichistory with many of the country’s most prominent and respected news authorities. In an October 2018 article Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote a piece on Trump’s intentionality in attempting to establish the media the metaphorical villain in the narrative of his presidency writing, “From day one, Trump wanted his villain to be the media. With Democrats basically powerless, the media was the only force powerful enough to make continuing sense of Trump’s aggrieved, oppositional political style.” In both tweets and press conferences, Trump and his Whitehouse have made countless disparaging attacks at the credibility of media outlets who oppose his administration. Pippa Norris addresses this tendency in her exploration of democratic backsliding in the West. She posits that leaders who revert to populism, Trump included, benefit from perpetuating a mistrust of ‘the establishment’, in this case being legitimate media outlets (Norris, page 3).
While Trump’s relationship with the media is one characterized by an “us vs. them” narrative wherein far-right supporters can rally around a concerted and artificial antagonist, many of his actions toward the media compromise the free-press’s right to keep political institutions in check. Specifically, Trump’s November 2018 interaction with, and subsequent treatment of, CNN’s Senior Whitehouse correspondent Jim Acosta evokes theories of Stealth Authoritarianism proposed by Ozan Varol.
Following last fall’s midterm elections, wherein Republicans lost forty seats in the House to newly elected Democrats, a routine press conference was held in the Whitehouse as Trump addressed reporters. Amidst a time of contentious rhetoric surrounding the border and the migrant caravan—an issue which significantly impacted the results of the midterms—Jim Acosta asked president Trump why he deemed the migrant caravan an “invasion.” After Trump’s limited response, he interrupted Acosta’s follow-up line of questioning shouting “that’s enough!” into the microphone. A White House aid was made to forcibly remove the microphone from Acosta’s hands as the exchange regressed into a hostile spectacle. The following day, Trump’s administration suspended Acosta’s press credentials, barring him from the grounds of the White House.
This move was not only unprecedented, but also undemocratic—erring on authoritarian. Ozan Varol hypothesizes that “stealth authoritarianism” is a method employed by regimes to mask undemocratic acts and policies through legal and institutional mechanisms (Varol, page 1679). Varol expands on this theory with a focus on the limiting of the free press, specifically through libel lawsuits, which he says have become a “powerful legal tool for undermining the public’s ability to monitor their political leaders” (Varol, page 1693).
While there were no libelous grounds upon which Trump could have sued Acosta, the revocation of his press credentials is not a dissimilar tactic, and its intent was analogous; Trump leveraged his legal ability barre access to the White House as a method of restricting opposition, or as Varol would put it, he “[portrayed the curtailment of dissent as an application of the rule of law” (Varol, page 1673). He wanted to send a warning message for reporters who throw him a tough line of questioning, consequently hoping to curtail the scrutiny he and his administration face for countless unjustifiable statements and actions. This conduct fosters self-censorship which Varol claims can“undermine the public’s ability to observe the incumbent politicians’ behavior, obtain critical inquiry regarding the incumbents’ actions and inactions, and mitigate the informational asymmetry between the regime and the citizenry” (Varol, page 1694).
Trump’s history of this form of stealth authoritarianism as described by Varol is not limited to this one-off incident. In January of this year, CNBC reported a Trump statement threatening to amend libel laws in order to make it easier to sue the media. “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace, and do not represent American values or American fairness,”he proclaimed. “So we’re going to take a strong look at that.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivanestablished a necessary threshold which claims of libel must meet to be valid in order to maintain the checks on both society and politics that the free press contributes. A reversal, or even a loosening, of these laws is clearly an attempt to limit the negative press coverage of Trump and his administration. This is a dangerous precedent to set in America, especially as the disastrous effects of libel lawsuits as a method of stealth authoritarianism are so widespread and well-documented in governments across the globe. Further, Trump’s combative relationship with the media should not be viewed merely as such; his actions towards the media are an embodiment of stealth authoritarianism and will continue to threaten democracy if left unchecked.