Normally when I do a news quiz post it is with a sense of cheeky jest, but today’s is deadly serious. Donald Trump is the leading candidate to be this year’s Republican nominee for president amid a swirling debate over whether, in Robert Kagan’s words, a President Trump would demonstrate “how political parties die and how democracies give rise to authoritarian rulers.” I agree with Kagan that the question over Trump’s authoritarian inclinations is no longer a question and is rather definitively settled, and the simplest way to see this is by examining Trump’s treatment of the press. A free press is the sine qua non of any functional democracy, and Trump has made it very plain that he views a free press as a nuisance that would hinder his ability to do whatever he pleases.
Conveniently for someone like me who writes about Turkey, there is another world leader who also views a free press as something to be quashed rather than accommodated. I think we can all agree that Turkey under President Erdoğan is not exactly a paragon of press freedom, coming in at 149 out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index and recently featuring scenes of angry pro-government mobs attacking both media offices and individual reporters while the courts order the government takeover of newspapers that conveniently happen to not toe the government line. This assault on the press has heralded a real and measurable authoritarian turn in Turkey, and the two developments have gone hand in hand. When a political leader inveighs against the media doing its job in such a consistent and unrelenting fashion, it reveals a lot about that leader’s stance toward democracy, as tragically seen again and again in Turkey. It stands to reason that if it takes some effort to distinguish Trump from Erdoğan when it comes to the subject of the press, we here in the U.S. should be more than a little concerned about Trump’s candidacy. So without further ado, read the following quotes and see whether you are able to identify which ones insulting, threatening, and belittling the media emanated from the current autocrat and which from the budding one.
- “Most of it [the media], seventy percent, seventy-five percent is absolute dishonest, absolute scum.”
- “The media should be independent and the level of democracy in a country is shown by the extent to which the media, journalists, and media employees are free. However, this freedom should not mean being exempted from all responsibilities. What matters is that people have access to true and objective news.”
- Singling out a reporter at a campaign rally by name who had written about him earlier that week – “A militant in the guise of a journalist, a shameless woman… Know your place!”
- Singling out a reporter at a campaign rally by name who had written about him earlier that week – “She’s back there–[derogatory nickname for the reporter]–she’s back there. What a lie it was, no, what a lie, [reporter’s name], what a lie it was from [media network] to have written that, it was a total lie…Third rate reporter, remember that, third rate, third.”
- “You know the press is among the most dishonest people ever created by God.”
- “Media should never have been given the liberty to insult.”
- “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them.”
- Threatening to sue a prominent newspaper – “The press wants to throw mud to see if it sticks. The [name of newspaper] is renting out its own pages for money. This is the [name of newspaper’s] failing. We will pursue legal channels regarding the [name of newspaper].”
- Calling out a reporter during a speech by name who refused to be in the same place as the candidate because of concerns over press restrictions – “Ah, we really depend on you. Who cares if you come or if you don’t….What an ignorant man you are.”
- Confronting a reporter at a press conference while alleging that the reporter misquoted him – “Do you apologize? Do you apologize for not reading my words? Do you apologize? No? . . . Okay, forget you. Just forget you.”
Folks, guessing the provenance of quotes is a fun little game, but the consequences are serious. Trump is fundamentally different than every other person running for president, because unlike the other candidates from both parties – whose views and policy positions you may find awful and contrary to American values – Trump gives no evidence that he is committed to democracy beyond getting the most votes and assuming power. Like Erdoğan, his fetishization of polls and vote totals as the only factors that matter betrays a theory of majoritarian governance that cannot be reconciled with liberal democracy. It is the notion that when you receive the most votes, you are entitled to do anything you please because the voters have given you a mandate to govern unencumbered by checks and balances. When Trump treats reporters as scum of the earth, this is what he is signaling. Accountability may be annoying to those in power, but it is the lubrication that keeps the engine of democracy from stalling.
Since this has been a sobering experiment and I want to end with a little bit of levity, who said the following quote yesterday? “I am a second father to every girl, a second brother to every woman.”
A. Donald Trump, dismissing allegations that he is a sexist
B. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking at a conference on women’s issues in Istanbul
C. Bill Cosby, defending his behavior toward women during a pre-trial deposition
Bonus question: B