The blaming of attempted bombings of prominent democratic leaders and opponents of President Trump on a vindictive press by him at a public rally casts a dark shadow over a bleak landscape where once the freedom of the press was a corner stone of our democracy. Declaring the press in the United States an “enemy of the people” rings reminiscent of attacks on the press in Germany of the 1930’s.
Around the world, strongmen have been attacking the concept of freedom of the press, as well as members of the press themselves. Putin has blatantly singled out members of the Russian press critical of his policies and shot them, poisoned them, run them over, and even thrown them off buildings.
Recently the direction by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to kill Washington Post reporter and commentator Jamal Khashoggi is a further attack on members of the media who criticize a strongman. The crisis that followed quickly drew in three men, all arrogant and disdainful of the law, hypocritically mouthing words they did not believe in order to quell the outrage, to support each other, or to gain political advantage. Those men are MBS, Erdogan, and Trump.
Though dictators throughout history attack and then silence a critical press, the 21st century has seen the rise of the strongman, particularly in the past few years and with it more direct and violent attempts to muzzle the media. With a surprising rapidity, the stepping forward of nationalistic politicians onto the world stage where they used to dwell on the fringes of society, mainly in the political shadows, has caught liberal democracies off guard. Such thinking seemed to be behind us, not any longer.
The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi is indicative of this new inward thinking nationalism and it’s hatred of the press not seen since the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Using terms such as fake news as a shield; the likes of Trump, Putin, Li, Erdogan, Duterte, MBS, among other strongmen, have begun to move societies against the media. With chants led by the President of the United States, “CNN Sucks!” augers poorly for American society and the world as a whole.
The loss of moral leadership by the United States under Donald Trump has enabled the increased pressure and attacks on a critical press. These various strongmen feel that being held accountable is no longer a viable threat to their political position at home or abroad. Essentially the rule of law, so essential to the maintenance of international peace and security, is no longer a deterrent.
The American President is pushing away legal, diplomatic, and political norms that have been cornerstones to that peace and security since 1945. The threat of pulling out of key geopolitical organizations and treaties such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization, the INF treaty, even NATO, have turned the early 21st century into a kaleidoscopic world where nothing matters and old friendships and allies are declared threats. We tend to forget Trump calling Canada, Canada, a national security threat.
Declaring oneself a nationalist in a global economy and international community sounds like a certain German chancellor in the 1930’s who founded and came to power with a nationalist political party. That chancellor did two things very quickly on seizing power, go after a vulnerable minority blaming them for the nation’s problems and attacking and muzzling the German press. Dictators do this as a matter of course. Stalin, Mussolini and Mao Tse Tung used the same tactics.
The citizenry of both Germany and the United States at first used the law to try to reign in this tsunami of hate, fear, and lawlessness, but to no avail. Politicians viewing this nightmare saw personal advantage and joined this surge of nationalism putting party over country. The Germans did this in the early to mid-1930’s and the Americans starting in the 2010’s.
The governing party then and now essentially looked at the political landscape and thought either you are with us, the party, or you are against us. The checks and balances under a constitutional framework went ignored for political power. The opposition at first resisted but had no answer. They were left shouting into the wind warning of a darker America.
A free and unrestricted press is the bulwark against such tactics. That is why strongmen quickly try to restrain and then silence all types of media, shaping it in a way that allows them to control and manipulate its citizens for their political and even personal advantage.
The genie of lawlessness may have now slid out of the bottle, never to be put back. The removal of all that a nation has stood for, particularly a free press, is starting to be removed one brick at a time: respect, kindness, moral courage, character, decency, and respect of the law and it’s institutions to include the media, both in Germany in the 1930’s and the United States today it is not a pretty picture.
The people of the United States know and see what is happening, yet they are still in a state of denial. Is it too late to step forward and stop this slide into the dark corners of anarchy? Not yet, but history shows us that time is of the essence. The power of the vote remains intact for now. If we do not use our right to vote, the man with no character, no respect for the law, and who mocks our traditions of moral courage will assuredly change our country in an unimaginable way.
As a republic, we need to hold the Constitution close and ensure our elected officials always turn to and use that Constitution as their guide. Our Founding Fathers always contemplated the push and pull of competing interests and desires in governing our Republic. I do not think our Founders ever contemplated this. Yet the Constitution remains the great gyroscope that keeps the Republic balanced under the law despite that ebb and flow of political and social strife.
Remember the loss of a free press in history and remember most of all the loss of the truth. As Joseph Goebbels stated in Nazi Germany, if you tell them lies long enough, they will start to believe them. We are not there yet, but possibly moving in that direction. Recall what Rudy Giuliani said recently, someone who once respected the law and the United States, “the truth is not the truth.”
David M. Crane was the Founding Chief Prosecutor, International War Crimes Tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone; Founder of the Syrian and Yemeni Accountability Projects; Principal, Justice Consultancy, LLC; and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Syracuse University College of Law.
Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Three Men and a Body: Media in the Age of the Strongman, JURIST – Academic Commentary, October 31, 2018, http://jurist.org/forum/2018/10/david-crane-media-strongman/
This article was prepared for publication by Kelly Cullen, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com