American democracy is approaching a critical moment. President Trump and his followers are stepping up their attacks on the press. In both word and deed, they have set out to challenge the very assumption that a free press is a crucial and indispensable part of our democracy.
A Republican congressional candidate allegedly assaults a journalist — and gets away with it. Security guards at the Federal Communications Commission rough up a reporter who tries to question an official. Someone fires shots at a newspaper office in Kentucky. The enabler in chief in all these cases none other than the president himself, who has repeatedly railed at journalists — at one point resorting to the Stalinist expression “the enemy of the people” — simply for doing their jobs.
People in the United States, who have relatively little firsthand experience with authoritarian leaders, tend to be somewhat naive about restrictions on press freedom. The typical American generally assumes that the prime danger to reporters is a vague practice known as “censorship.” Yet censorship is a blunt weapon at best, and quite often it’s the last resort of dictators who have already established their control and want to maintain it. If we want to anticipate what Trump is likely to do next, it makes more sense to look at a different set of countries — those where leaders have gradually subverted democratic institutions on the way to building up their own personal power.
Consider Turkey. These days, now that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has enshrined himself as a virtual ruler for life, it’s easy for him to simply throw journalists in jail. Yet not that long ago, when he still had reason to maintain a democratic veneer, Erdogan often opted for intimidation, applied indirectly. Rather than attacking critical journalists head-on, officials ordered tax audits or punitive inspections of businesses owned by the offender’s relatives. The government also became adept at exerting pressure through the owners of private media outlets, who were often all too eager to rein in their reporters.
Vladimir Putin followed a similar pattern in Russia when he took power in 2000. At the time, the country still had a variety of competing media outlets. But the new president didn’t deploy censors against them — he sent in the tax police instead. That’s how he began his crackdown on NTV, the privately owned TV station that had made a name for itself by criticizing the government. NTV belonged to the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, who soon found himself indicted on fraud charges relating to his business dealings. In the end, the company was taken over by Gazprom, a state-controlled rival. The critical reporting ceased soon after that.
It’s worth noting that Trump has already hinted at the use of comparable tactics. He has threatened to unleash an antitrust action against Amazon, the company founded by Jeff Bezos, as a form of retaliation against critical coverage from the Bezos-owned Washington Post. He has also vowed to sue the New York Times for its reporting on sexual harassment claims against him during the campaign (and again for publishing leaked pages from one of his tax returns).
It so happens that libel and defamation claims make convenient weapons for aspiring autocrats, too. Journalists investigating corruption allegations that involve the high and mighty are particularly vulnerable. Officials in places from Liberia to Thailand have used defamation allegations to bully journalists into silence. Trump, of course, once famously vowed to make it easier to sue reporters, declaring, “We’re going to open up our libel laws.”
Other would-be strongmen have discovered the joys of online bullying. When Rodrigo Duterte was campaigning for the presidency of the Philippines, his followers formed their own “troll army” who unleashed savage attacks on critical journalists, up to and including death threats and the publication of sensitive personal information. Victims found it almost impossible to fight back — and it was easy for Duterte’s team to claim innocence, since most of the trolls in question were “volunteers” with no clear link to the campaign.
Trump’s more zealous followers already fulfill this sort of function for their idol. But Chuck Johnson and Mike Cernovich, two notorious pro-Trump trolls, are vowing to take things to the next level, each announcing websites specifically designed to “go after” mainstream journalists. The advantage for the White House, of course, is the same kind of deniability that Duterte could count on: Neither of the men is directly linked with the president.
We can’t predict whether Trump will soon launch a full-fledged campaign against the press using all or any of these tactics. But one can’t help wondering what he might try as he feels boxed in by the growing chorus of allegations about his ties to Russia. At one point, reportedly, Trump even asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey about jailing journalists who were on the receiving end of leaks. (Comey claims he demurred.)
Will Trump follow through? It’s possible, of course, that the president is merely trying to keep his critics guessing. But one thing is clear: If the experience of the world’s ex-democracies is anything to go by, this is no time for complacency.