We are all witnesses to the “new normal” in the Trump administration. In power all of three weeks, the president and his proxies have issued a ban on Muslims coming into the country and immigrants seeking sanctuary. He has barred people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, although no one from those countries has ever traveled to the U.S. and committed acts of terror against our people.
Trump has insulted our allies, exchanged terse words with other leaders and promised to remove any number of barriers that now stand to separate church and state in our own country. Steve Bannon, his senior adviser, has told the press to shut its mouth, and the president himself has derided, defamed and attempted to delegitimize various media outlets. His press secretary, Sean Spicer, referred to the press as the “opposition party.”
Many of us are afraid to look at our phones or fire up our computers. Many of us don’t turn on the TV anymore. We know if we do, there’ll be a “breaking news” story about some new dangerous absurdity or chilling proclamation coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
What I’ve been asking folks concerned about the Trump presidency is this: What is your own, personal last straw? What might Trump say or do that would be not just shocking, but intolerable? And when and if that happens, what would you do about it?
What would I do? I can’t offer the comfort of a plan of action. I don’t really know how to move forward if the Trump agenda stiffens and strengthens and becomes even more threatening to American democracy. All I know to do is what I’m doing: writing and talking about keeping America true to its democratic values. I’m renewing all my newspaper subscriptions, even though I read many of them online.
One friend said that her critical issues are women’s rights and the right to choose abortion. Another said that Trump had already crossed the line in the sand for him when he banned Muslims. Someone else said he couldn’t tolerate the blurring of lines between church and state, but he doesn’t know what he could do about it except take to the streets and protest, as others have been doing.
I am deeply concerned about the denigration of the press, when our newspapers and media reporters are the only possible sources of balance and challenge to the “alternate facts” flowing from Trump Inc. Any autocrat worth his salt knows to crack down on the press, shut down newspapers, lock up journalists and narrow the flow of information to one single source: the government.
In these first weeks, the open hostility toward the press is an ominous sign of an administration moving closer to a closed society than an open one, more toward opacity than transparency.
Five years ago, well before the emergence of candidate Trump, The Atlantic published a piece by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, who had interviewed Andrew Nagorski, author of “Hitlerland,” which discusses the way Americans viewed and wrote about the dictator’s rise to power in the 1930s. Read it for yourself. Nagorski talks about American officials who met Hitler early on and said he was a “clown,” a self-caricature. Most thought, even as he gathered power, that other German politicians would be able to control him.
But Edgar Mowrer, a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, wrote, “What he’s saying about the Jews is serious. Don’t underestimate him.” In 1933, Mowrer advised Jews to get out of Germany. But who could believe that what began as pushing people around on the streets would end in ovens at Auschwitz?
Who would have been prescient enough to pull up roots, sell possessions and leave a homeland based on some government regulations, even those as concerning as the Nuremberg Laws of 1935? So the rules proclaimed you were Jewish if you had Jewish grandparents, even if you were not a practicing Jew. So the rules said you couldn’t marry a German, and the rules said you couldn’t be a citizen of the Third Reich. Wouldn’t it all pass eventually? Wouldn’t the government right itself and moderate?
In 1933, Hitler put control of the newspapers in the hands of Joseph Goebbels, who made the press the propaganda arm of the Nazi Party. Jews were not permitted to own newspapers, and journalists had to prove that they were “racially pure.”
It is no small thing to threaten the free press in any country. History is our teacher. No one is saying that Trump and Bannon and Kellyanne Conway are horsemen of an apocalypse, but their grab for power and their discrediting of journalists must be seen for what it is: a clear and present danger to our democracy.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.