The President of the United States our role model, our leader, the most powerful man in the world stood in front of a throng of people on a recent September evening in Minnesota, riffing like a comedian.
Wasnt it a beautiful sight, he said.
Donald John Trump was describing the fact that police officers at a demonstration protesting the killing of George Floyd had fired into the crowd and unknowingly hit prominent MSNBC broadcaster Ali Veshi in the knee with a rubber bullet. Veshi was covering the rally, a protected freedom of assembly event, and was retreating from police and the front lines when he was shot.It is why we have journalists: they go where we cannot sometimes dangerous places and report back to us.
Beautiful, the President said. It's called law and order."
And the crowd cheered his remarks.They cheered the shooting of an American journalist. A few days later at another rally, he repeated the refrain: Seeing the reporter thrown aside. like he was a little bag of popcornits a beautiful sight.
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally.(Photo: [Lucy Schaly/for BCT])
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No wonder that at Trump rallies his minions can be seen wearing no masks but t-shirts emblazoned with, Rope, tree, journalist. Some assembly required. He eggs them on. He exhorts them to taunt and threaten the fake news purveyors.
Of course, to Trump fake news is simply anything that is critical, that puts him in a bad light or doesnt agree with whatever lies he floats from a disappearing virus to the myth of his business acumen. It is the hallmark of authoritarians, dating back to the Kings of Europe who would cut off the hands of disliked writers.
When allowed, I wrote in this space in September 2018, the authoritarians, the unscrupulous in power, will try to meddle, control, block and suffocate dissent and disagreement.When you expose or criticize or give space to the opposition, you must be the enemy.
The President of the United States, running for re-election on Nov. 3, was in quarantine this week, and we wish him and his family well.But the fact of the matter still remains: He is the worst and most dangerous First Amendment President America has ever seen. He has offered a treasure trove of material for people like me who write about freedom of speech.
But for the Constitution and democracy he is a menace, failing to understand why the Framers put these protections in writing in 1791, four years after actually adopting a constitution.They knew autocrats, like Trump, would try to drown out opposition parties and shut down anyone who got in the way of their holding power. Lock up those pesky reporters and broadcasters!
As the election nears Ive looked back over the 45 free speech columns I have written since Trump was elected, and they document a growing menace, a brooding and petulant man who, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bernard Stein told me, doesnt seem to have any grasp of the prohibitions (on his power). He just chafes against them. It is not a good thing to have authoritarian impulses. If your reaction is to put your fingers in your ears, you are missing something valuable.
What he is missing is the heartbeat of democracy: a civil debate on the problems that confront us and discussion of how to deal with them.
The first maxim of the First Amendment is that people can peaceably gather.Its their chance to yell at City Hall, to protest police practices, to complain they dont like to be told to wear masks or squawk that the Presidents maskless rallies are spreading the virus. Take to the public square and vent your spleen!And the government cannot stop you based for dislike of your speech.
Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Geneva Overholser told me the Presidents attitude toward free speech and press was truly scary.And she is right because as I wrote in July 2019, When the First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791, one of the major concerns was to find a way to stop the central governmental authorities from controlling our speech, in essence, from trying to control our thoughts.Think it, say it, publish it and you are protected. No Big Brother can stop you.
But Big Brother Trump doesnt get it. This President will kick you out of the square if you dissent from his view of the world, like the football players who kneeled in silent protest at police brutality.He doffed his presidential cap to the white nationalists but declined to support peaceful protests of racism.Until a federal judge reminded him that the First Amendment doesnt allow censorship of critics, he tried to block opponents on his Twitter page.
And dont you dare let him hear about his mistakes, if youre a reporter.The Saudis can assassinate Washington Posts Jamal Khashoggi, but dont dare ask an impudent question at a press conference, especially if you are woman.Off to the Gulag!
The atmosphere of hate against the press has been caused by Trump.When you repeatedly call a treasured, protected institution an enemy of the people, you lay the seeds for attacks on the press. When you constantly demean reporters, impugn their integrity, point at them at rallies so they can be jeered and go to war with them beyond the expected adversarial relationship you invite violence.
Trump just has never gotten it that the press was never meant to be his arm; it is the peoples arm.
And dont get me wrong, as I wrote in July 2018: The Fourth Branch of government needs to be held accountable, as do all American institutions. A little tongue-lashing is a good thing.But when it comes from the President, when it refuses to recognize the role the press plays as glue and lubricant in democracy and when it seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the institution of journalism, it is beyond worrisome it reeks of dangerous authoritarianism.
But that is what we have: a dangerous authoritarian who seeks to stifle dissenting voices, intimidate critics, discredit the press, hide his personal and governmental activities even during his health crisis and ignore that the Constitutions First Amendment insures that a democratic society have uncensored debate and discussion in order to be self-governing.
When you use the bully pulpit to promote a climate of violence against one of the most vital institutions protecting our liberties, you need to be held accountable. And you need to be denied that bully pulpit.I wrote those words in July of 2018. Now the time has come:Throw the bully, Donald John Trump, out of the pulpit.
Rob Miraldis writings on the First Amendment have won numerous state and national awards.He teaches journalism at SUNY New Paltz. Twitter @miral98 and e-mail email@example.com.
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