This past week, more than 300 American newspapers colluded — if the word fits — to simultaneously publish editorials declaring themselves, contra Trump, not “the enemy of the people.” Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring that it, too, did not consider the press to be, in a phrase that evokes the rhetoric of the former Soviet Union, state enemies.
The Boston Globe organized this journalistic flash mob.
“The greatness of America is dependent on the role of a free press to speak the truth to the powerful,” the Globe’s editorial board wrote. “To label the press ‘the enemy of the people’ is as un-American as it is dangerous to the civic compact we have shared for more than two centuries.” President Trump has repeatedly derided the media as “the enemy of the people” and purveyors of “fake news” on Twitter and at campaign rallies.
The First Amendment guarantee of press freedom, the Globe wrote, “has protected journalists at home and served as a model for free nations abroad. Today it is under serious threat.”
Is it really?
No doubt, Trump’s rhetoric evokes the president’s authoritarian instincts.
But let’s separate Trump’s crude rally remarks and crass online rants from his administration’s policies. What is he actually doing? How does his day-to-day governance represent a radical departure from the norms established by presidential precedents?
When you set aside Trump’s talk in order to focus instead on his walk, it is hard to conclude that he is an outlier by American standards. A better analogy, a friend observes, is Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer commonly associated with AIDS. It can kill you. But it’s not the main reason you’re having problems.
In other words, Trump isn’t — despite what 300-plus newspaper editorial boards would have us think — a root cause of American crisis. He is a symptom of pre-existing conditions. This is important. Because if we delude ourselves into thinking that getting rid of Trump will fix what ails us, things will only get worse.
Running down the list of what offends people about Trump, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before — and ignored when other presidents did them.
Trump stands accused of colluding with Russia to steal the 2016 election. There is still zero evidence that this happened. It’s still just vague insinuations leaked to newspapers with histories of cozying up to the CIA-FBI-NSA by anonymous CIA-FBI-NSA spooks.
There is, on the other hand, ample evidence that Ronald Reagan colluded with Iran to delay the release of the 52 American embassy hostages held in Tehran in order to destroy Jimmy Carter’s re-election chances.
Richard Nixon colluded with a shadowy Taiwanese business executive with ties to South Vietnam in order to scuttle the Johnson administration’s last-ditch attempt to negotiate peace between South and North Vietnam just before the 1968 election. LBJ said Nixon was guilty of “treason,” but nothing happened.
Trump has been criticized for mass deportations of illegal immigrants, including separation of children from their parents, and rightly so.
But there is nothing new about Trump’s actions on immigration.
As the National Immigration Law Center points out, “President Trump is exploiting the tools and infrastructure set in place by previous administrations to (1) expand the definition of who should be banned and deported and (2) militarize federal agencies and build up the deportation machine.”
Trump has legitimized the “alt-right,” i.e. the psychotic right-wingers we used to call Nazis, Klansmen and fascists. Even after a fascist murdered a woman and injured others at an alt-right riot in Charlottesville, the president wallowed in false equivalence: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Coddling racists is disgusting. But it’s not new to American politics.
Reagan relied on racist dog-whistles during his 1980 campaign, which he launched in the small Mississippi town where the Klan murdered four Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan said. States right was political code for supporting racial segregation.
On substance, legislation and regulation, Donald Trump is virtually indistinguishable from his predecessors, many of whom are responsible for far more serious attacks on democracy.
George W. Bush alone is guilty of far more heinous crimes. He introduced the dangerous explosion of “signing statements” in which the president signs a bill into law and then crosses his fingers behind his back, secretly ordering that the law not be enforced. And he invaded Iraq pre-emptively, an extreme violation of international law, which states that nations may only go to war in self-defense or when faced with a grave and imminent military threat.
Where Trump differs from previous presidents is in tone. He is obnoxious and obscene. He lies … loudly.
It isn’t surprising that Trump’s trash talking is freaking people out. But we shouldn’t conflate rudeness with an existential threat to democracy. Democracy, decency and civility were never real American values in the first place. That, not Trump, is the real problem.
Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.”