Enshrined in the United States Constitution, freedom of the press is integral to the success of democracy. The press serves as the people’s watchdog, a voice for the voiceless, and a check on the power of the government. When authoritarian figures come to power, one of their first offensives is often waged against the media for those very reasons. Why would a leader who is primarily concerned with obtaining and maintaining power, regardless of free and fair opposition, allow dissent to spread?
In Turkey, journalists are thrown in jail, put on trial, or exiled from the country. In Saudi Arabia, where there is no constitution, journalists are forced to self-censor their work, or risk having the censorship done for them on an Internet that is heavily monitored. In North Korea, under the rule of Kim Jong Un, a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, and travel restrictions are imposed on journalists to keep the media repressed. And, in the United States, President Donald Trump has created a narrative to turn the public against the media. Though what journalists might identify as a massive smear campaign against them may not appear to be as intense or dangerous as risking jail time, exile, or even execution for simply doing their job, a president turning the people against the very institution that works to bring them fair and accurate news and information is perhaps the most dangerous move a leader could make of all.
The key characteristics of a democracy are defined by the continuing responsiveness of the government to the needs of its citizens, who are and should be considered political equals. Specifically, democracy requires that its people be free to form and join organizations, express themselves, access alternative sources of information, and have institutions for making government policies depend on voters and their preferences. Though meeting each single criterion is not necessary in order for a country to be a democracy, functioning democracies typically rank rather high in possession of many of these characteristics . Though the press and the government often have a precarious relationship, there are government officials and politicians, such as the late Senator John McCain, who still recognize the press to be a vital component of democracy.
One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian leader, then, is a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of their opponents, especially the media . These leaders put restrictions on the media’s operation because they believe it to be contrary to the so-called popular will of the people. Trump has dubbed the press “the enemy of the people” on more than one occasion, heavily shaping the way the American public views the very institution created to work by and for them.
At the core of every modern definition of democracy is the idea that “institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” Recognizing the important role of leadership and how issues are translated avoids the problem of conflating the will of the majority with the will of the people, which arguably are concepts that do not neatly translate to the real world and are not real outcomes of the democratic process. Political decisions produced under the guise of the “will of the people” do not actually represent the people at all .
As democracies erode, a “new generation of authoritarians cloak repressive measures under the mask of law, imbue them with the veneer of legitimacy, and render authoritarian practices much more difficult to detect and eliminate,” .
Back in 2016, Trump was elected president. He did not stage a coup, nor did he attempt to seize power through other nontraditional means. Democracy, however, is endangered when mainstream political elites and their parties attempt to co-opt a populist outsider. The Republican Party has rallied around Trump time and time again; their loyalty epitomized by the recent impeachment trial. What political elites do when an authoritarian leader comes to power, stealth or not, determines whether democracy survives or fails . Only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to convict the president on one count of abuse of power. Following his acquittal, Trump singled out Romney in a Twitter rant and accused the “Fake News” of not covering his rallies fairly.
What Trump calls the “impeachment hoax” has also continued to highlight his treatment of the media. Withholding or distorting information for public debate is one of many pathways leading to constitutional retrogression . Thanks to the platform Twitter provides, Trump has had nearly unchecked ability to reach masses of people with his messages. In this tweet, Trump claims that the witnesses in his impeachment trial were up to the House rather than the Senate, which is simply not true. However, not all of 72.3 million people who follow Trump on Twitter are going to be familiar enough with the nuances of government to know that factoid, and Trump is therefore able to get away with making false claims and spreading misinformation.
Two weeks ago, the GOP Twitter account tweeted a video clip of Trump speaking at one of his rallies, and quoted him saying, “Under just 3 years, my administration has now added 12,000 new factories and many more are being built.” NBC News Correspondent and MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle quoted the tweet in response, saying, “Dear – @GOP and @WhiteHouse – Who can I contact to verify this claim? Where are the locations? What are the companies? Who are the workers?” In a Fox News interview, Trump called the organization Ruhle works for “dishonest media” and has singled out NBC news “especially” for being “fake media” and “fake news.”
The duty of journalists not only in the United States, but around the world, is to hold those in power accountable for their actions as well as their words, just as Ruhle did. To try and turn the public against a vital institution such as the press is indicative of the beginnings of authoritarianism no matter the country, for the people require and deserve an independent and free conduit to help them comprehend the world around them. Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.  Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.  Schumpeter, Joseph. (1943). Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.  Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100(4).  Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. (2017). How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy. Working paper.