"2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government,” said Flake, who decided not to run for reelection in November. “It was a year which saw the White House enshrine 'alternative facts' into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods.”
Flake criticized Trump for repeatedly branding Russia's apparent interference in the 2016 election as a hoax, for spreading “untruth” about the birthplace of former president Barack Obama and for clinging to “pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate.” And he pointed to Trump's “shameful” description of the mainstream media as the “enemy of the people” as something straight out of Stalin's Soviet Union.
“The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy,” said Flake. “When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him 'fake news,' it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.” As if on cue, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Flake of being a “mouthpiece” for the Cuban government, a seemingly textbook moment of ham-handed propaganda.
The senator's moralizing probably will be welcomed by Trump's critics and a bruised Washington media. But they are unlikely to move Trump — who earlier mocked Flake as “unelectable” — nor his core supporters, who have been fed a steady diet of resentment and rage at the mainstream media for years. Although Flake and some of his Republican allies single out Trump for his reckless and even dangerous behavior, they are much quieter on the ecosystem that gave rise to the president's brand of hard-line politics.
Flake also argued that the damage wrought by Trump at home has profound implications elsewhere, pointing to leaders and officials in other countries who have parroted Trump's rhetoric as they squeeze dissent.
“Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language,” Flake said. He went on, referring to Syria's dictator: "We are not in a 'fake news' era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies everywhere."
That was also the conclusion reached this week by Freedom House, a Washington-based nonpartisan watchdog, in its annual report on the state of global democracy. The organization uses its own metrics to measure the health of a nation's democracy, ranking countries around the world as “free,” “partly free” and “not free.” In 2017, according to the executive summary written by Michael Abramowitz, Freedom House's president, “political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade.”
The organization points to 12 consecutive years of democratic decline, sped by nations that once seemed “promising success stories” — such as Turkey and Hungary — "sliding into authoritarian rule." But this year, the report noted, the global plight of democracy has been made all the more dire by the Trump administration's rhetoric and posturing.
“Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America's democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace,” a summary of the report stated.
Freedom House bemoaned Trump's “retreat” from America's supposed traditional role as a champion of democratic principles around the world. As we've noted in this space before, Trump has largely replaced talk of universal values and rights with appeals to a narrower cultural or civilizational identity, exposing divisive fault lines within Western societies. All the while, as Abramowitz wrote, “the American leader expressed feelings of admiration and even personal friendship for some of the world’s most loathsome strongmen and dictators.”
Human rights rarely feature in Trump's discussions with most world leaders, including a Tuesday visit to the Oval Office by Kazakhstan's long-ruling autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev — a meeting that featured Trump imperiously tossing CNN reporter Jim Acosta out of the room for asking questions about Trump's views on immigration.
Although the Obama administration at times "fell short," as Freedom House put it, in defending the United States' democratic ideals elsewhere, Trump has "made explicit — in both words and actions — its intention to cast off principles that have guided U.S. policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades."
A recent story in BuzzFeed about crackdowns on media and civil society in countries in Southeast Asia shows how this has had real effects."Local organizations working on human rights issues are home alone, and their governments know it,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch to the news site. “Dictators are taking opportunities to achieve gains because the biggest voice in the human rights community isn't there.”
It's worth noting, as defenders of Trump's foreign policy very well may, that Freedom House is not without its biases, and its system of evaluating democracies has often played alongside the subjective views of an interventionist Washington establishment.
But as Trump finishes his first full year in power, the inquests into the impact of his presidency will only continue to mount. Next week, as Trump takes center stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the president will have yet another opportunity to change the narrative of his turbulent rule. Don't be surprised if, instead, you hear more of the same.
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