There is so much to write about right now for a political blogger, yet I don’t think I’m alone in being so overwhelmed that I’ve struggled to put words down. I could write about the Muslim ban (yes, it is a Muslim ban). I could write about senseless alienation of our allies, like Australia, only to satisfy President Trump’s brash pride. I could write about his threats to send troops to Mexico (again, our ally). I could write about the confirmation of an oil executive as our Secretary of State, or the nomination of an EPA adversary to run the very same agency. I could write about the travesty that is the nomination of Betsy DeVos. I could write, as I have in the past, about the infiltration of our Executive Branch by advocates of institutional racism, such as Jeff Sessions.
Of all the freedoms Trump has threatened either in word, deed, appointment, or Executive Order, let’s confront the very First (with an intentional capital F): the First Amendment right to free speech, press, and peaceful assembly. For those of you who take Trump’s threats to this freedom seriously, I commend you. For those who insist these are empty threats, I implore you to open your eyes. Trump has made evident since his very first day in office that he is not joking. The delusion that this may all be a charade needs to stop here and now. The normalization of Trump and his administration needs to stop here and now.
A white supremacist being a lead advisor to the President is not normal, but Stephen Bannon’s language, if not his fingerprints, are on every single order and statement that Trump issues. The nomination of an Attorney General whose history of racism rendered him too contentious to be confirmed to a federal judgeship is not normal, but Jeff Sessions’ nomination is advancing to the full Senate, where he will surely be confirmed. A President who refuses to divest from a multibillion dollar business or, at a bare minimum, be transparent about his tax returns is not normal, but these conflicts have been permitted to fall to the wayside, even by his opposition. A mass disavowment of facts is not normal, yet they appear to have no consistent value in America’s new “reality.”
Returning to free speech and press rights: Trump has forbidden his staff to give interviews to news outlets that displease him. He has told civil servants that if they do not agree with him, they should leave rather than register their concerns (even through the official State Department dissent channel that’s existed since the Vietnam War). He’s berated individual journalists. He’s chastised peaceful protesters. He’s threatened to withdraw federal dollars from schools where protests occur. He fired Sally Yates, who questioned the legality of his Executive Order (which, by the way, was part of her job description as Attorney General).
We can and will fight back. We must fight back. But I wonder aloud: can we undo the damage that has been done by Trump’s promotion of his favorite concept of “fake news”? Trump’s supporters now live in a world where increasingly, objective fact does not exist. You could cite any statistic in the world. You could cite any direct quote. You can cite any study or history book. It doesn’t matter. If it displeases them or the President, surely it’s fake news. How do we undo that? Even with a press that has sterling integrity (which is impossible. There will always be the National Enquirer — WHICH, by the way, Trump has praised — and the like), I am apprehensive that the concept alone of “fake news” is here to stay, and its political implications are enormous.
So what do I recommend we do? First, I place the disclaimer that I can only guess. But here are the principles I propose we, the increasingly organized resistance, adopt right now:
- We take seriously the threats that Trump poses to free speech and reject them every single time a new one surfaces, registering this rejection in all ways possible (letters/calls to representatives and media, peaceful protest, social media, etc.). We resolve to make President Trump know he will garner no admiration by painting a free press as his adversary.
- We protest nonviolently, but with all the conviction and passion our minds and bodies can muster.
- We support protest by those with whom we disagree as long as it is nonviolent and protected by the First Amendment (Note that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, but there are strategies to mitigate conflicts arising from hate speech without violating First Amendment rights. Also be mindful that while hate speech is protected, “fighting words,” threats, and incitements to violence are not. Hate speech can often include such elements. These forms of speech must be disavowed).
- We support the right of private institutions to allow or prohibit certain forms of speech within the bounds of their own institution.
- We reject the term “fake news,” even when we believe a news article may accurately be classified as such. Do not use the language of those who wish to suppress your voice. It lends them legitimacy.
- We reject the word “lie.” “Lie” is a judgment of the intent of the speaker. Instead, say something is “false” or “not proven.” Always provide evidence to support such an assertion.
- We hold ourselves personally to the standards of accountability and truth that we want our press to embody. We provide only demonstrable facts.
- We admit when we do not know something. When we do not know something, we research it thoroughly and relay our research onward.
- We demand our legislators align themselves unequivocally with a free press. We hold them accountable for any complacency.
- We donate money and/or time to organizations that defend civil liberties.
- We donate money and or/time to organizations that provide training for aspiring journalists or in civil disobedience tactics.
- We recognize that certain citizens, such as racial minorities, the LGBT community, the impoverished, the disabled, children, and the elderly have barriers to free speech and participation in free press. We donate money and/or time to organizations that empower and assist these individuals to meaningfully participate in our democracy.
- We recognize the importance of evaluating someone’s exact words. We do not dismiss the evaluation of language as “semantics,” “rhetoric,” “reading too far into things,” or, worst of all, “political correctness.”
My final suggested principle is the most difficult to confront. We have lived with our First Amendment rights for so long, we cannot easily acknowledge the following reality. We must acknowledge it now.
- We recognize that in this turbulent time, laws may change so drastically that certain forms of just and currently legal free expression may become illegal. We proceed according to our First Amendment rights as currently established, with the understanding that we may face repercussions for such expression, including being harassed, accosted, and jailed.
I find it useless to cite the Civil Rights Movement or any variety of revolutions here. We all know what has been done by brave and successful resistance in the past and what must be done now. It is a question of whether we are brave and wise enough to take seriously the danger in which our country finds itself. This will be determined less by our capacity and more by our commitment. There is no denying that we truly are at a crossroads and, as the cliché goes, we each must decide now if we will do what is most just or what is most immediately convenient. Let us not forget that each of us bears both personal and collective responsibility for not only what has happened, but for what will happen to our nation.