Published with permission of Press Run, Eric Boehlert’s new must-read media newsletter. Subscribe here.
The telltale signs of autocratic rule are not difficult to identify. And for American news outlets, they're often quick to tag authoritarian leaders around the world, as they move to curb liberties, skirt existing laws, and curtail press freedoms. Why is it so many of those same news outlets refuse to use the "A" word to describe Trump, even as he mimics the actions of authoritarian rulers here at home? Why is it considered ttaboo to describe a Republican president that way, when the description is apt and informative? It's likely because the press doesn't want to fend off cries of "liberal media bias,” and because the press doesn’t want to break protocol with its presidential coverage. In the process they’re allowing the unthinkable to become commonplace.
Trump often flaunts his anti-democratic tendencies, knowing the media won't hold him accountable by using accurate language. Trump's presidency has featured authoritarian moves from the beginning, like declaring a phony national emergency in order to to grab billions to build a border wall, trying to obliterate the country's checks and balances system of government, and attacking the validity of the free press with relentless, false about the news media. The tactics often mirror today's radical Republican Party.
That disturbing pattern has escalated in recent days, amidst a global pandemic, when Trump fired an inspector general who reviewed the whistle-blower complaint that led to his impeachment, arbitrarily removed the lead watchdog overseeing the $2 trillion coronavirus package, and attacked another inspector general who criticized virus testing shortages.
The extraordinary power grabs came the same week the Republican-controlled United States Supreme Court essentially threw out thousands of votes in Wisconsin when, in a stunning 5-4 decision that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said "boggles the mind," the Court refused to postpone Wisconsin's primary election vote, despite the fact that the state's largest city is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic and scores of polling places there were shut down due to lack of polling workers.
As a result, Milwaukee voters had to wait hours in the rain on Tuesday to cast a ballot in an election the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called "the most undemocratic in the state's history." (It's all part of the GOP's autocratic commitment to making it harder for Americans to vote.) In addition, Trump this week launched a campaign of lies about the security of mail-in ballots, which will likely have to be used this year as the country struggles with social effects of the coronavirus, and the need to keep social distancing in public.
Indeed, the pandemic itself has sparked more authoritarian moves by Trump. Like undemocratic leaders in China and Russia, Trump's first response to the health crisis was to recklessly downplay the problem, to silence scientists, lie about the government's aid and response, and to lash out at critics. Note that Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom Trump has praised in the past, moved to establish emergency executive powers that effectively disbanded parliament, dispersing the country's nascent democracy.
Trump is not a dictator and cannot disband Congress, but his recent autocratic moves are unprecedented in our modern American democracy. And the maneuvers this month come after his February purges of officials who testified in the impeachment trial and Trump’s attempts to meddle in the sentencing of friends and political allies convicted of crimes. These are the type of disturbing actions that the United States traditionally condemned when they occurred in other countries, particularly among emerging democracies. Now they're happening here.
As for the Beltway press, you don't hear many warning about Trump's authoritarian ways in the news coverage. (That seems relegated to the opinion section.) Instead, his undemocratic consolidations are watered down and made to sound almost normal. Here's how the New York Times described Trump's stunning decision to sack an inspector general for purely political reasons: "The move came at a time when the president has been reasserting authority over the executive branch and signaling impatience with independent voices within the government that he considers disloyal."
Kneecapping domestic oversight = "impatience with independent voices"? That's quite a stretch.
Note that foreign journalists and commentators seem to have a better understanding of Trump's authoritarian streak, since they’ve seen more examples of leaders like that in their own regions. They also seem to have little hesitation in calling it out— they're not afraid of the GOP jabs. "Trump has repeatedly shown that he anyway believes that there are no legal or constitutional limits on presidential authority," warned Andrew Gawthorpe, a history professor who teaches in the Netherlands, just as the pandemic began to take shape in the U.S.
And from Russia's Garry Kasparov, surveying the wreckage of Trump's pandemic response: "It’s been compounded by another autocratic tendency in the Trump administration, incompetence and nepotism."
Trump's the most radical president this country has ever seen. Journalists need to break free from the culture of Beltway timidity and start describing him accurately. They have no problem labeling authoritarians overseas. So why not the ones here at home?