America’s temple of democracy is built on the optimistic belief that free people can find the truth to run a democracy — if all people are allowed to say what they think.
Citizens — not just kings and queens and presidents — have the inalienable right to use reason to discover the facts and make good democratic decisions based on those facts. This rational search for the truth links the free press with institutions of democratic self-governance because the press is in the vanguard of the search for truth and the facts upon which it is based.
Americans believe with a religious fervor in the inevitable triumph of free expression in a democracy.
John Milton proclaimed this faith four centuries ago during the European Enlightenment when he said, “Who knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter” with Falsehood.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. embraced it a century ago when he wrote, “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
And the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed it in the face of the presidential deceit revealed by the Pentagon Papers when Justice Potter Stewart wrote “an alert, aware and free” press is a precondition of “an enlightened people.” In turn, an enlightened people is a precondition of a well-governed republic.
These trusty aphorisms about the inevitable victory of truth in a free society are the pillars that support our democracy. But today the pillars groan under the weight of information chaos and presidential perfidy.
First , the information chaos.
Holmes’ quaint market of ideas has exploded like the big bang. Each dawn brings a galaxy of billions of Facebook messages, YouTube videos, Tweets, texts and Google searches.
Cambridge Analytica captures the private information from 50 million unsuspecting Facebook users, building a psychological profile that enables it to influence American and British elections. Russian internet agents in St. Petersburg sow dissent among Americans from afar and their non-human bots spread the venom from community to community. Unsuspecting Florida supporters of Donald Trump erect a makeshift jail and employ an actress to play a “locked up” Hillary Clinton — all at the behest of foreign agents.
Each day brings 22 billion texts, 5 billion Google searches, 4.3 billion Facebook messages, 5.75 billion Facebook likes, 6 billion hours of YouTube videos watched, half a billion tweets and 67 million Instagram messages.
The list of new communications devices, institutions and communication terms that have appeared in the last decade have mushroomed as well – citizen journalist, smartphone, GPS, social media, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Periscope, livestream, tweets, links, likes, impressions, shares, friends, followers, click bait, fake news, big data, Breitbart, alt-right, chatbots, WikiLeaks, Google Earth, virtual reality, photoshop, face recognition. And on and on it goes.
Julian Assange, who would claim the mantle of Arthur Sulzberger and Kay Graham, acts instead as the agent of Vladimir Putin. Rather than publishing democracy-cleansing secrets such as the Pentagon Papers, he acts as an enemy agent fencing Democratic Party secrets stolen in a successful cyber-Watergate that tilts a presidential election.
Yes, there are big ideas, news and scientific discoveries to be found among the information chaos. A single Twitter handle can ignite a national reform movement. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter. But it can also round up an internet lynch mob to get white supremacists from the Charlottesville protest fired or expelled. And there is the trash of fake news stories, conspiracy theories, misogynist and racist attacks and terrorist recruitment.
Perversely, fake news travels faster than real news in this online democracy of the web. The fake news is more surprising and unexpected because it is wrong, MIT researchers found. For that reason, internet users are more likely to pass it along. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/19/fake-news-social-media-twitter-mit-journalism
Sometimes the most appropriate Holmes quote is the one about yelling fire in a crowded theater. The red-hot marketplace of ideas at times seems on the verge of bursting into flames.
Meanwhile, the U.S. president assaults the pillars of truth. He piles lie upon lie until the real is seen as fake and the fake is seen as real. He mocks the best, most credible news organizations, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, while praising the worst, such as Fox & Friends and Hannity. He claims the most serious attack on a presidential election in American history is a hoax and that he is the victim of a witch hunt rather than the beneficiary of the attack.
He calls a truth-teller like former FBI Director James Comey a liar while he claims it a great day for democracy when he finally badgers Attorney General Jeff Sessions into firing former Acting Director Andrew McCabe.
He repeatedly declares there is no collusion with the Russians, even though his former national security adviser and a former foreign policy adviser have pleaded guilty because they lied to the FBI about their dealings with the Russians — and even though his son, son-in-law and campaign manager met with Russian agents in Trump Tower during the election to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.
He and his Republican yes-men in Congress claim there was a conspiracy of FBI agents — a cabal, a “Deep State” of Washington professionals — who have plotted to overthrow him since before he was elected. And the White House announces hiring a lawyer, Joseph diGenova, who subscribes to that ridiculous theory, claiming without evidence there is “a group of FBI and DOJ people … trying to frame Donald Trump of a falsely created crime.” (In another sign of White House chaos, Trump backtracks on hiring deGenova a few days after announcing him.)
For anyone who has lived in Washington and gotten to know as neighbors the FBI agents and CIA agents and Justice Department lawyers and EPA scientists who devote their work to nation, this idea of a Deep State conspiracy is as absurd as the evidence for it is absent.
But for the rabble-rouser-in-chief the FBI conspiracy is another way to amuse the masses, to divert attention from wrong-doing and incompetence and to discredit in advance the mounting evidence of obstruction of justice those agents are compiling under the direction of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller.
Trump fires those around him. He ignores — or maybe doesn’t even read — the capitalized advice of his advisers not to congratulate Vladimir Putin for his rigged election. He makes no mention of evidence Putin’s agents poisoned a former spy in Britain or that he interfered in our 2016 presidential election. Remember, he’s taking Putin’s word on that one.
Can anyone imagine Ronald Reagan or any other American president behaving this way? The only people Trump wants to get tough with are the score of women who accuse him of sexual assaults and adulterous affairs with porn stars. He claims he’s above the law and should be protected from their claims. His lawyer pays off the porn stars to buy their silence while the White House claims, implausibly, they are lying. Innocent men don’t pay porn stars for their silence. Nor do honest presidents have to force aides to sign legally dubious non-disclosure agreements to keep them from talking about his scandalous behavior.
This is a president at odds with the values that make America great — a free press, human rights, decency, diversity, equality, a polity formed by a nation of immigrants. It is a rejection of President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” and President Obama’s belief with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Three lines of defense remain to stop this demagogue. One is the legitimate press that seeks to be heard amidst the clamor of information chaos. Another is the rule of law, as enforced by Mueller with the backing of the courts. The third is the American people doing their democratic duties. It may require all three checks on presidential power to end this disastrous presidency and preserve our temple of democracy.