It came over the city during the night, hovering eerily over the Capitol. Some people saw a spooky cloud, while others saw a haze of sorts, appropriately tinged yellow. But as it moved over the Capitol dome, everyone heard the same thing — a terrifying crunching sound. One by one, congressional leaders were having their spines removed.
The first person to be filleted in this matter was Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the speaker of the House. He was averse to Donald Trump, but he subordinated the larger agenda of opposing an anti-democratic president to a smaller agenda of tax cuts and regulatory reform. Ryan would make a splendid president of any chamber of commerce.
The other leaders have been similarly de-spined. They chortle among themselves as Trump says in the morning that he will veto this bill or that bill, and in the afternoon signs it. They say nothing about the rhetorical mugging of Mexico or his long-held and mysterious adulation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They stay silent while being soaked in a rain of lies, dignity running off them and splashing into the Washington gutter.
So maybe it’s foolish to think they might speak up when the president uses his office to attack the free press. He calls stories he doesn’t like “fake news,” as he did with reports that he would fire national security adviser H.R. McMaster — just before doing so. The incessant barrage of bogus criticism from the White House, the constant attack on the impartiality and professionalism of the press, has taken a toll. A recent Monmouth University poll confirmed what we all know: The term “fake news” has been widely accepted. Republicans see fake news in stories that are critical of Trump; Democrats see it in those that are not.
This division is not entirely new. For years, major American cities had “Democratic” and “Republican” newspapers. In Chicago, the Tribune was unabashedly Republican. In New York, the Daily News was once Republican, and the Post once Democratic. Still, Democrats read Republican newspapers and the other way around. Now, though, a Fox News viewer is likely to watch only Fox News. Too bad. “Fox & Friends” has the ratings, but it is to journalism what pornography is to sex.
Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other GOP congressional leaders surely do not for a minute believe that CNN, the New York Times or The Washington Post invent stories critical of Trump. They not only know better, they rely on these organizations to stay informed. Moreover, they appreciate why freedom of the press is embedded in the Constitution — No. 1 among amendments.
These leaders can probably all cite John Adams on the subject and certainly Thomas Jefferson, who said that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” he’d prefer “the latter.” Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who fled Nazi Germany, put it this way: “The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen.” And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), having been freed after serving as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, first asked for a decent meal and then for newspapers. It was a deprivation he keenly felt. “Of all the privations and injustices suffered in undemocratic nations, lack of a free press is among the worst,” he later wrote in a preface to David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” a journalist’s account of government deception in Vietnam.
Of course, Trump’s defenders would say he doesn’t want an unfree press, he just wants a fair one. Not so. What Trump actually wants is a servile press, one that offers praise, withholds criticism and refrains from reporting awkward truths. That’s probably the reason he has criticized Amazon, which was founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Post. That might also be a reason the Justice Department is trying to block the merger of Time Warner and AT&T. Time Warner owns CNN, which Trump loathes.
Amazon can take its lumps. But the use of the bully pulpit to punish a corporation for a political reason would be yet another thing Trump has in common with Putin. It is, at its core, deeply un-American. This does not mean the press is above criticism. It is not. But that criticism must be fair and fact-based — not a lie.
If America emerges from the Trump years with a corrosive distrust of the press and a less vigorous democracy, then Republican congressional leaders will have to take some credit. Instead of protesting, they preferred to protect their political fortunes, play to the basest part of their base and remain meekly mute. They lack spine. Trump took them all.
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