Only Putin wins in Trump's war on the press
By Samantha Vinograd and Asha Rangappa
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) plans to give a speech this week comparing President Trump’s characterization of the press as “the enemy of the people” to former dictator Joseph Stalin. The comparison is apropos — Stalin stifled the press and other freedoms within the Soviet Union — and timely.
At the start of Trump’s presidency, those of us who had worked in and for the government slept better at night knowing that our institutions — the entities and freedoms which make up our democratic “security blanket” — would keep things in check. A year in, however, we are confronted with the stark reality that this security blanket is getting worn thin from repeated attacks on the legitimacy and credibility of our democratic institutions.
Trump’s rhetoric is largely to blame. The one person who sleeps better as a result is Vladimir Putin as he sees the fruits of his labor ripen: Russia’s information warfare campaign is geared at undermining our democracy and every attack the administration makes on its foundations is a win for Putin and his ultimate objective of weakening the United States.
Our system of checks and balances and separation of powers provides built-in panic button to always keep things on track. This system works not just because of the people who comprise it — public servants like judges, diplomats, law enforcement, members of Congress, and also the “fourth branch,” press — but because people have faith in their effectiveness.
Acting in concert and with different missions and goals, these institutions promote fairness, equality, security, transparency and accountability. And while parties change power, these institutions strive to remain non-partisan: Various officials of both parties have been the subject of ethics and FBI investigations, congressional scrutiny, and other checks on their privileges, demonstrating that we are a country of rules, not men.
Over the past year, however, the president has relentlessly undermined every one of these institutions and politicized them. He has criticized “so-called” judges who have ruled against his policies and pardoned a public official who violated orders of a federal court. He has accused the Intelligence Community of being “Nazis” — while excusing actual Nazis and called some who march with them “very fine people.”
He has accused the FBI and the Department of Justice of engaging in a personal “witch hunt” against him, while simultaneously demanding investigation and incarceration of his political enemies. He has suggested that American foreign services officers who were serving in Russia were costing the U.S. too much money — and thanked Putin for expelling them.
He has also made ubiquitous the phrase “fake news,” which is used to describe anything unfavorable reported about him. Americans wake up every day witnessing attacks by Russian bots and trolls on the pillars of our democracy alongside tweets from the president doing just the same thing. A Gallup poll released just yesterday reveals that 43 percent of Americans have a negative view of the press, and Republicans are more likely than Democrats to label accurate news stories they disagree with as “fake.”
Trump's words are music to Putin’s ears, especially when they are believed and echoed by the American public. The Intelligence Community has assessed that Russia has for years engaged in campaigns to undermine confidence in the U.S. led democratic order. Every retweeted tweet Trump writes about the Democrat “hoax” that is the special counsel investigation makes it easier it is for Putin to deny his role in his attack on our democratic processes. Each repeated allegation Trump makes that the Intelligence Community engaged in political espionage or that the FBI is treasonous gives Putin more cover for Russia’s ongoing operations in the U.S.
Worse yet, when Americans believe Trump’s claims that judges are partial or the media is propaganda, it becomes easier it is for Putin to justify his own autocratic hold on power, and claim that democracy is a sham.
Democracy can be dismantled by words as well as actions if they contribute to a belief that no one or nothing upholding its underlying values can be trusted. In the long run, the Trump administration’s delegitimizing rhetoric on America’s collective psyche is even more damaging than its policies — which is a gift to our adversaries. Before that cynicism can take hold, we must stop and remind ourselves what the actual role is of the people who keep our democracy running, and not let our faith in them erode.