After five weeks of steady pummeling, American democracy is holding—because its institutions are stronger than Donald Trump. Let’s begin with the press.
As John McCain reminded us, dictators “get started by suppressing free press”—and Donald Trump is no exception. Trump and his press spokesman Sean Spicer will not be satisfied until there is a totally sycophantic press, accepting Trump’s twisted view of the truth, and adoringly reflecting it back to the great leader and his people. Kind of like the free press in Putin’s Russia.
But that’s not going to happen. The press has never been more determined to hold its ground.
Certainly, press solidarity behind the First Amendment is not all that it should be.
In last week’s schoolyard game of banning from a White House briefing media with the temerity to expose Trump’s lies, propaganda organs like Fox News and The Washington Times were all too pleased to play Sean Spicer’s petty game. Shamefully, so were ABC and NBC, whose correspondents did not walk out when The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and other mainstream media were banished.
But maybe this charade is a blessing in disguise. For one thing, news organs will have to decide whether they are part of White House propaganda machine, or genuinely independent media. The ones that show up to meekly parrot Trump’s lies will start looking very foolish.
For another thing, White House press briefings are vastly overrated. It’s no accident that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were on the Metro staff of The Washington Post, and did not cover the Nixon White House. They went after the real story where they found it—and press aide Ron Ziegler’s pressroom was the last place to look.
I had a White House press pass in the Watergate era, and I seldom used it. I can tell you that precious little news emerged from Nixon press conferences or briefings.
Fencing matches between reporters and Spicer are a weird form of entertainment, but not a venue from which truth will emerge. Besides, spectacle is Trump’s genre, not that of a free press.
There’s a good case that the serious press should not allow itself to be props in Spicer’s petty games. Yes, they should demand equal treatment, but if he continues to play favorites, the hell with him. Indeed, if the Times, the Post, and other serious news organs are banished from the White House, they will have more time and resources to ferret out the truth.
Bullies usually turn out to be cowards. Spicer is hiding from the serious press because he can’t face the truth. Likewise Trump’s own refusal to follow custom and attend the White House Correspondents’ annual dinner. He’d be roasted alive.
Each day that Spicer stage-manages a phony press conference, the serious media should publish lists of questions that demand answers. If Spicer ducks them, he’s that much more of a coward, because he and his boss can’t face the truth.
The press is one of several firebreaks in an era when the president of the United States wants to govern as a dictator. And the press is not alone. Indeed, some of the firebreaks, institutions usually considered conservative, are already surprising both Trump and his critics.
One is the courts. Even with the eventual confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, the courts will take a dim view of efforts by Trump to defy court orders. There is a higher loyalty to the independence of the judiciary. As opportunistic as many conservative judges are, an open attempt to place the president above the law would be struck down.
Another is the military. The military tends to be conservative in the best sense of the word. When zealous civilians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, LBJ, Richard Nixon, et al) send American forces on fools’ errands based on grandiose lies, it is the military that pays the price. And the generals know that.
It is strange for people with no love of militarism to admit that the security of American democracy—not just in the sense of the national defense but of democracy itself—is now in the hands of three retired Marine Corps generals: Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security.
These are serious men, with the patriotism and self-respect to tell the president when he is blowing smoke. He can’t fire them all.
As Patrick Granfield wrote in a thoughtful piece for Politico, “a fundamental shift in civil-military relations is taking hold. Rather than civilian leaders checking military power, it is now military leaders who represent one of the strongest checks against the overreach of a civilian executive.”
A fourth firebreak is the more high tech part of corporate America. The nation’s most innovative companies have little patience for Trump’s war on immigrants, and are willing to say so. (Other corporations, alas, are following a venerable tradition of getting in bed with fascism if it serves their bottom lines.)
Yet another firebreak is American federalism—in two senses. Some blue states and cities can demonstrate policies that are the opposite of Trumpism. These policies are vulnerable, however, because most waivers that allow states to have policies at odds with those of the national government (such as higher minimum wages or tougher clean air standards) are merely statutory, not constitutional. And law can be changed.
But a stronger federal firebreak is the power of state attorneys general, who are beyond the reach of the Trump administration. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is said to be pursuing major investigations of Trump corruption under state law. Among other findings, these investigations could force the release of Trump’s tax records.
The press by its nature is an insurgent institution. It has always battled privilege and deception. But it’s a little strange for progressives to be cheering for other institutions that only yesterday were seen as citadels of conservatism: the military, the courts, and states’ rights. Yet these are not just instruments of right-wing policies—they are conservative in a deeper sense, one that is especially needed now.
One institution, however, is missing from this list of conservative defenders of the Constitution—the Republican Party. To an appalling degree, Republicans have been willing to let Trump govern as a would-be dictator, as long as it serves their policy and partisan goals.
If John McCain can shame a few more Republicans into remembering true conservative principles, it will drastically shorten this terrible time for America. Trump would be gone and McCain could win a Nobel Peace Prize.