As hundreds of thousands of protesters shut down the streets of Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and millions more marched all over the country and the world, America’s new president sent his press secretary to attack the White House press corps and claim Trump’s inauguration crowd was the “biggest ever.” This strange and obvious lie was taken by some commentators to be a warning aimed at the press – a defiant statement that Trump intends to propagate his preferred reality and vilify reporters who contradict it.
That may be true, but what Trump proudly calls his “running war with the media” obscures an even more fundamental threat to U.S. democracy: He’s trying to silence and erase citizens who don’t support his message and policies by claiming he alone speaks for “real” Americans and can tell us who qualifies as such. Attacking the press is a more palatable way to go after his real target: “We the People.”
Trump told the country what he thinks of dissenters in a snide tweet in response to Saturday’s massive protests, saying he “was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Well, they did, as evidenced by the marchers chanting, “We are the popular vote!” past the White House. Regardless, the implication in Trump’s tweet is that once you’ve been outvoted, you should shut up. Needless to say, that is not how democracy works.
Trump repeatedly claimed in his inauguration speech that he speaks for and will govern for “the people.” He referred to his oath of office as an “oath of allegiance to all Americans.” In fact, the oath he took isn’t one of allegiance to “the people” – he took an oath to uphold the Constitution. “The people” disagree about lots of things; the document structures how the country navigates those disagreements, and restricts what those in the majority can do to those in the minority. But Trump has made it clear he plans to justify whatever he wants to do as the will of “the people” while portraying anyone who disagrees with him as too crooked and corrupt to be among them.
Democracy requires competition among opposing ideas. There can’t be a debate if those in power refuse to acknowledge facts or dissenting viewpoints. Elections have consequences, of course, but it is still the president’s job to serve all the people – including those who didn’t vote for him, or who did vote for him but oppose particular policies (like Trump voters who don’t want him to take away their health care or defund Planned Parenthood). Trump is instead purporting to have a mandate for radical and unconstitutional acts – promoting an alternative political reality in which he isn’t deeply unpopular by fabricating crowd numbers, while dismissing those who’ve taken to the streets to express their fear and dissent in unprecedented numbers.
On Wednesday, Trump doubled down on an even more frightening strategy to deny facts he doesn’t like and define anyone who doesn’t support him as un-American when he repeated the widely debunked conspiracy theory that he would have won the popular vote if not for widespread voter fraud. Trump went on to call for a “major investigation” into his claim of illegal voting, for which there is absolutely no evidence.
This lie about the election represents an expansion of Trump’s delegitimization campaign against Barack Obama, to new targets. Trump is claiming millions of people who voted against him are either literally not American or un-American fraudsters who voted in two states or under fake names.
This fits a pattern of trump attempting to discredit or silence those he deems enemies. After promising to release his tax returns, Trump’s camp declared he didn’t need to because only reporters care about them. The 74 percent of Americans who told pollsters he should release his returns, and the thousands who marched on Washington chanting, “Show us your tax returns!” or who signed the WhiteHouse.gov petition demanding transparency apparently don’t count. (The petition, which is still open, quickly hit the 100,000 signatures needed for a White House response. After initially saying Trump wouldn’t release his returns, adviser Kellyanne Conway now says he may release them once he’s no longer under audit. Trump has refused to explain why an audit prevents him from releasing his returns, or to provide proof that he is even being audited – though he will be soon, because the IRS audits the president every year.)
Trump targets individuals who question him as well. When a union leader corrected the record about the jobs at an Indiana factory Trump claimed to have saved, Trump used his megaphone to try to discredit and silence him. When women spoke out to allege that Trump did commit the kinds of sexual assaults he was caught on tape bragging about, he characterized them as lying political enemies and threatened to sue.
We can now expect official actions to keep inconvenient information out of the public sphere: The Trump administration reportedly ordered the EPA to remove its webpage about climate change and the National Parks Service to stop tweeting after it retweeted a picture comparing Trump’s and Obama’s inauguration crowds.
The outlandishness of Trump’s crowd size and vote count claims are enough to make one wonder if he’s delusional, and it’s tempting to chalk up his attacks on the press to his wounded ego. But the experience of other countries suggests his campaign of disinformation and delegitimization is more nefarious. Norms protecting freedom of information, speech and the press are essential for a functioning democracy; to Trump, they are a threat. Populist dictators get away with extralegal and unconstitutional acts by claiming authorization from “the people.” The first step in that anti-democratic effort is to make sure people with inconvenient facts and contrary ideas are silenced, discredited or erased. That’s what Trump is doing now. Don’t stop paying attention.