I haven’t been overly concerned about Donald Trump’s election. Though I’m not a fan, I’m mostly curious about the reasons he won and am fascinated by the abrupt deviation it seems we’re about to take from the only identity I’ve ever known our country to have.
As a leader, I do find him an unfortunate choice. His attitudes and behavior are unbecoming of the office. His egomania is small and uninspiring. And the policy trajectory of his chest-thumping policy missives strike me as both regressive and typical of a certain brand of rage-fueled, white, American and usually (but not always) male perspective that I find both tedious and a little pathetic given, well, all of human history.
Nonetheless, from a constitutional-order perspective, many of his policies are within the realm of acceptability. This isn’t the first time the country has changed its position on immigration, isolationism, global leadership, health care, trade, humanitarianism and women’s rights. While Trump’s apparently ad hoc methods seem risky, the substance seems unlikely to end us as a nation.
At the same time, there’s a whole lot of crazy going on. Our President seems obsessed with non-facts, unclear about the parameters of our constitutional system, mired in ethical conflicts and disdainful of the office he holds. So while I’m trying to maintain perspective, I very much don’t want to be one of those people in 1936 Germany who thought “well, at least it can’t get any worse.”
To this end, my eye is on the two institutions I see as critical to ensuring we weather this storm: the media and the federal courts. These will be the canary in the coalmine of this presidential term – and may determine whether Donald Trump spells crisis or catastrophe for the United States as we know it. Trump can issue a slew of game-changing executive orders, unleash a tsunami of hyperbolic insomnia-fueled tweets, claim that his administration is “unwilling to be wrong” and ordain himself King of the Universe, but if the media hold him accountable and the courts slap back any overreaching, the country should emerge unscathed. Different, perhaps, but fundamentally intact.
The federal courts are off to a good start. Over the weekend a federal judge responded to Trump’s executive order targeting Muslims by staying deportations under the order (simultaneously providing a nice civics lesson about the importance of life tenure for judges).
The media, however, hasn’t fared so well, in my opinion. At his first post-election press-conference, Trump refused to answer questions from CNN reporter Jim Acosta – calling the reporters a “pile of garbage” and accusing CNN of being “fake news.” Shocking treatment from a president-elect, certainly. More shocking was the response from the dozens of other reporters in the room. The group, whose very existence has been built on the principle that nothing is more damaging to democracy than the quashing power of censorship, not only failed to speak this truth to power, but utterly abandoned their colleague – some even applauding Trump’s dismissal.
For decades, the American media has had a creeping problem. Confident in virtually unlimited First Amendment protection, the press as an institution has essentially abandoned its constitutional mandate. Much of the commercial “news” relied upon by the public for information has become a mix of spin, half-truths, intentional omissions, red herrings, diversionary emphasis, inflammatory commentary and content selected for ratings (meaning dollars, of course) instead of relevance. This is true for the left and the right, and obviously there are significant exceptions particularly among independent and public media sources. Yet the institution itself seems largely blind to the result – ironically exploring every possibility but itself as the cause for our arrival in the “post-fact” era.
Has the media, like our citizenry, forgotten its role simply because it hasn’t had anything truly compelling around which to rally? Will a common threat unite and motivate? The American press is surely aware how quickly the tide can turn on journalists under tyrannical administrations. There’s no reason to think the US is exempt from this possibility. But if the treatment of their CNN colleague is any indication, there’s a long way to go before many reporters realize how important their response to this administration will be – and possibly not much time to get there.