Time for Donald to Take a Big Fall

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Democracy's Constitution / Repairing the System

The title to Tim Wu’s op-ed in the NYT sounds the alarm– “How Twitter Killed the First Amendment.”  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/27/opinion/twitter-first-amendment.html?_r=0. .

Professor Wu  points out that there has been a dramatic change in how speech operates in American politics.  Formerly, the First Amendment worked to protect speakers from government prosecution, thereby creating a workable national political discourse. But now censors in Russia and China have invented new techniques geared to the internet age that permit them to “not only disseminate pro-government news,” but also “generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government.”  Information is no longer a tool of  enlightenment, but has also become  a weapon “to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.”

Wu also points out  that  these techniques have been imported into our own political discourse, ironically by our own president. “The administration habitually crosses the line between  fact and propaganda.”  And Trump’s supporters are also skilled in using Facebook and Twitter to “manipulate American political debate.”

I applaud Professor Wu for warning us that the  Trump presidency constitutes a mortal danger to  American democracy.  He also helps us understand some of the  causes of this danger. There are lots of  them.  It started with the discovery by  psychologists  that  people are by nature much less rational than had been supposed.  Not only are we irrational but we are consistently irrational in ways that allow  clever opportunists  to manipulate what we believe.  We tend to believe falsehoods that make us feel good more readily than truths that don’t, and to  accept as true false propositions if they are frequently repeated.

Our psychological frailty has  allowed people like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes  to create a  new decentralized  free speech marketplace where some newspapers,  television networks. and  internet sites  give their audiences  only information they already agree with mixed with  repeated accusations of the iniquity and stupidity of their opponents.  The information is different on Fox than on CNN, but the strategy is the same.

And now social media corporations like Twitter and Facebook have invented techniques that allow them to micro-target  selected audiences  at a speed that had been heretofore  impossible.  Trump  agents were able to  feed the unemployed construction workers in Michigan the “truth” they wanted them to hear about “rebuilding America” at the same time as they were painting Hillary Clinton as a modern Lady Macbeth to the liberal Republican women in Pennsylvania.   And neither audience  ever knew the identity  of the source they were relying  on.

Trump has also helped instigate the era of “fake news.”   The term has been used to describe two different propaganda techniques. One is  the  systematic  repetition of statements (e.g. “Obama was not born in the United States”) the speaker knows are untrue.  The second is even more toxic; it consists of a  constant volley of false statements  by authority figures  (e.g. the president of the United  States)  accusing main line news sources  like the New York Times  and  NBC of routinely lying to their audiences. The result has been the creation of a political discourse where the very idea of  “truth” is a contested concept.

It is clear that there are many areas where the new internet  techniques  must be regulated, but this promises to be a very long and contentious process. Right now we have a more immediate problem.  President Trump is using his constitutional powers to  sow distrust in the integrity of  our traditional procedures for  establishing political truth. The idea of  a First Amendment “marketplace of ideas” where opposing ideas compete in a  fair competition from which truth  emerges is central to our democracy.  The Trump presidency continually attempts to undermine that competition by accusing the traditional  umpires in this debate, like the Times and NBC, of intentional lies.  The longer he stays in office the more harm he does to the voters’ trust in the  democratic process. If  the legitimacy of our political discourse is going to survive, American  voters are going to have to decisively repudiate Donald Trump before he completely destroys trust in the system.

How will that repudiation come about?  The constitution provides a mechanism: impeachment. That will require the House to pass articles of impeachment–most likely charging Trump of colluding with the Russians to impact the 2016 election–and then having the  Senate  find Trump guilty as charged.   Actually I think Trump is guilty of the even greater constitutional crime of subverting the democratic process.  But whatever the infraction charged, it is not clear that impeachment will be successful because both houses of Congress  are now controlled by a Republican party  that seems  increasingly to fear Trump more than he fears them. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/25/us/politics/trump-republican-party-critics.html

Should impeachment fail, it will be necessary that the voters overwhelmingly reject Trump  and the Republican party in 2020. This too will not be easily accomplished with  a polarized electorate fed false and confusing  information.  Trump  is still supported by 35-40% of voters as well as the leadership of the Republican party.   And that’s  a lot of voters in a polarized nation, especially when you add to them voters who don’t approve of  Trump but prefer him to an opponent whom Trump and his agents will  constantly demonize as they did Hillary in 2016.

Now all voters who reject Trump and Trumpism must confront the urgent issue of repudiating Trump. Lingering tensions between Clinton and Sanders supporters within the Democratic party must be neutralized and moderate Republicans and  Independents must join together  to repudiate Trump.  We all  lose if he wins.

If we hope to put our  fragile Humpty Dumpty of a democracy back together again,  it’s Donald Trump who  must take a great fall.


1 Comment

  1. Dede Donovan says

    Good first cut on a really tough problem, John. I look forward to hearing more from you on how the First Amendment can survive in an era when the concept of “truth” seems to be disappearing.


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