Jeff Flake to Trump before the "Fake News" Awards: America's press isn't the "enemy of the people"

We inhabit a deeply sick political culture when a speech this anodyne and platitudinous can send tribalists on both sides into a rage. A year into Trump’s presidency, slow-witted liberals still can’t compute why Flake would continue to vote for Republican policies despite his personal contempt for the president. And because conservatives bristle at any defense of the media from the right, they’re killing Flake for noting that Trump took a page from Stalin’s playbook in dismissing the media as an “enemy of the people.” (Technically just the “fake news media,” not the media writ large, but close enough.) Flake’s not accusing Trump of being Stalin, though. He’s making the point that authoritarians of all stripes, from the innocuous like Trump to the most malevolent like Stalin to everyone in between (Assad, Duterte, etc), use “enemy of the people” language to equate criticism of them personally with treason against the country. An attack on the leader is an attack on you, the citizen. That’s standard blather from strongmen who resent accountability.

Flake was foolish to hand his own critics a cudgel by invoking Stalin, knowing that they’d harp on that to distract his audience from his larger message, but in a sense he went easy on Trump. If he wanted to knock POTUS for coopting language from the golden age of fascism and communism, he didn’t need to stop at “enemy of the people.”

Here’s the transcript. Flake chose today to speak because, supposedly, Trump will be announcing his awards for dishonesty in media tonight at 5. (“It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are,” says Flake, correctly.) Whether that’ll happen or not is anyone’s guess; yesterday Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it a “potential event” when asked if it was still on. If it doesn’t happen, then Trump’s own Fake News Awards will themselves be fake news, which would be appropriate. As Flake notes, a lot of fake news comes out of the Trump White House:

It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.

But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation…

Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.

Remember, he’s talking about a guy who cries “fake news!” not just when the media legitimately blows a story, as his friends at CNN have done more than once over the past 12 months, but who once said that every negative poll should be regarded as fake. That’s what Flake means by “conditioning the public.” Trump doesn’t want you to have a healthy suspicion of the media’s means and motives. He wants you to categorically disregard any unflattering story you hear about him, up to and including scientific polls that cut against his preferred narrative. That’s the connection between authoritarianism and scapegoating the press; the less you trust the latter as an arbiter of truth, the more you’ll trust the former. “We are not in a ‘fake news’ era, as Bashar Assad says,” Flake argues at one point. “We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.” Correct. In hindsight it seems inevitable that grassroots conservatism, which allegedly championed small government and Reaganism, would have produced a cult of personality around a crudely authoritarian candidate like Trump. Reagan is, or was, an idol of grassroots conservatives but his ideology has never really been the beating heart of conservative activism. Disgust for the media has. That’s why Trump’s base never wavered last year even when nothing was getting passed by the GOP Congress. Trump was still dumping on CNN every week or so, right? Well, that’s what we elected him for.

My guess is that he’s already bored with the idea of the “Fake News Awards” and will tweet something tonight at 5 to the effect that there’s no need to give out any because CNN would win everything anyway. As for Flake, who will continue to get killed from both sides for this speech as either a closet-Trumpist phony or a closet-liberal hack, it’s pitiful that such a minor act of civic hygiene like asking the president to stop being such a dime-store demagogue in attacking the press would make people so angry. Oh well. In a year he won’t have to care anymore. Actually, he probably doesn’t care now. Good for him.