Perhaps it’s a sign of the low expectations so many have for this president, or the ever-higher bar for what qualifies as surprising political news, but there’s something revealing about the muted reaction to John McCain’s recent Washington Post op-ed, which accuses the President of being, at best, too dimwitted to understand how his behavior is giving cover to authoritarian crackdowns on journalists across the world. “President Trump does not seem to understand,” McCain writes, that his attempts to “discredit the free press … are being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.” Employing notably strong language (considering the forum and intended audience), McCain refers to the lack of “strong leadership in the White House” and urges Congress to take up the work that the President is uninterested in pursuing.
Let this count, first of all, as an act of penance from the man who foisted Sarah Palin on American politics, clearing the path for Trumpism to overtake the GOP. Yes, it’s a small act, but as E.J. Dionne, Norman Ornstein, and Thomas Mann recently wrote in these pages, the “progressive wing of the anti-Trump movement” would be wise to respond to gestures from the anti-Trump right by “welcom[ing] their witness.” A growing number of prominent conservatives are rethinking their relationship to the GOP, and there have even been occasional signs of awakening among a handful of professional moderates. There’s a reasonable skepticism on the left about bestowing too much credit to people for coming to the belated, and pretty obvious, realization that one party has gone off the deep end. Still, it’s possible to welcome converts to the opposition while asking them what took so long—and besides, everybody has to start somewhere. More importantly, if these new allies can overcome their occasionally priggish aversion to liberal and/or partisan politics, these gestures could eventually amount to something.
That raises the question of what McCain will do next. He lists a number of actions Congress could take, but they’re poorly aligned with the concerns that generated the column. There’s work for legislators to press foreign governments on their press freedom practices, to denounce abuses, to appropriate funding here and there in support of worthy causes. But none of this is particularly new territory; nothing has changed since January 20, 2017 to give Congress substantially more power to protect press freedom worldwide. What has changed is the attitude of the White House toward freedom of the press. The White House is the problem. Only a change from the White House can provide a real solution.
Unfortunately, there is no hope that Donald Trump will change. In fact, even McCain’s complaint, and the relatively tame proposals which follow from it, rest on a mistaken premise: That Trump behaves this way because he doesn’t recognize the power of his words. Now, it seems inarguable that Trump, who doesn’t understand very many things, also fails to understand this fact. But if Trump did recognize the power of his words and actions, does anyone seriously believes that he would behave differently? No; he behaves this way because he has fundamentally authoritarian instincts and is obviously not disturbed by attacks on journalists.
Of course, one of the classic moves in the authoritarian playbook is not merely the suppression of true information, but the generation of false information—as well as the intentional destruction of authoritative sources that can help individuals tell the difference. The epistemological chaos sowed by entities like Fox News is an ongoing crisis for American democracy (one that predates this presidency, but has grown worse during it). The so-called “war” between Trump and Fox News, once thought to be an important development during the 2016 primary, is now all but forgotten. The network now serves as Trump’s propaganda arm, and veers disturbingly close to calling for violent opposition to Robert Mueller’s ongoing FBI investigation. One of the reasons Trump attacks the “Fake News” networks is that constant flattery from Fox has conditioned him to expect similarly supine adulation from everyone else.
“Ultimately,” McCain writes, “freedom of information is critical for a democracy to succeed. We become better, stronger and more effective societies by having an informed and engaged public that pushes policymakers to best represent not only our interests but also our values.” If McCain wants to back up this concern with meaningful action, and understands that Trump himself can’t be changed, he might consider organizing influential conservatives who no longer wish to enable the media infrastructure that, in turn, enables the President’s attacks on journalists and undermines the goal of an “informed and engaged public.” The schmoozy ties that render Fox News personalities respectable in elite conservative circles have not only corrupted the GOP; they’ve undermined the possibility of informed public discourse and helped elevate an authoritarian to the White House. If that genuinely troubles members of Congress, they should not only take official actions in support of journalism abroad; they should consider, in informal ways, how they might avoid elevating propagandists at home.