Jeff Flake

Jeff Flake Highlights Donald Trump's Rhetorical Kinship With Censorious Autocrats

The crucial difference is not temperamental but institutional.

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C-SPAN

I'm not sure 2017 was the year in which the truth was "more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country," as Jeff Flake declared in his Senate floor speech today. But the Arizona Republican, a longtime critic of Donald Trump who decided not to seek re-election this year, is right that the president combines a blatant disregard for the truth with an open contempt for the press in a way that sets him apart from any of his recent predecessors. As Flake noted, those tendencies are especially evident in the rhetoric that Trump borrows from and lends to dictators of the past and present.

"Our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies," Flake said. "It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase 'enemy of the people,' that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of 'annihilating such individuals' who disagreed with the supreme leader."

Trump, who planned to announce "Fake News Awards" today recognizing the "most corrupt and dishonest" reporting of 2017, has clarified that he does not think all journalists are "enemies of the people"—only the ones who make him look bad. In his original formulation, Trump condemned "the FAKE NEWS media" as "the enemy of the American People," a category in which he specifically included The New York Times, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Fox News, presumably, is not an enemy of the people, and neither is The Federalist's Adam Levine, who recently received Trump's gratitude for opining on Fox News that "Donald Trump is the greatest president our country has ever seen."

As Jesse Walker has noted, the phrase "fake news" originally referred to hoaxes but was quickly extended to sloppy reporting that was false but not consciously so and even to real news with an ideological spin. In Trump's hands, it became an all-purpose epithet for anything negative a journalist might say about him, true or not. It is disturbing (but not surprising) to see authoritarian leaders of other countries echo this usage. Flake offered examples from a December 8 report in Politico:

"In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, 'You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.'

"In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being 'demonized' by 'fake news.'" Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote "laughing by his side," Duterte called reporters "spies."

In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to [RT], the Russian propaganda outlet, that "the world media had 'spread lots of false versions, lots of lies' about his country, adding, 'This is what we call "fake news' today, isn't it?"

There are more:

"A state official in Myanmar recently said, 'There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,' referring to the persecuted ethnic group….

"Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised 'fake news' legislation in the new year."

The point is not that Assad et al. would be more tolerant of dissent without Trump's example. Matt Welch is appropriately skeptical of attempts to blame Trump for a global downturn in press freedom. But it surely is embarrassing that the self-styled Leader of the Free World talks this way and thereby lends rhetorical cover to censorious thugs. "Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press," Flake said, "but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language."

The shared language is of a piece with Trump's disquieting praise for strongmen who get things done, including Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and the Chinese leaders responsible for the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The crucial difference between Trump and the autocrats he admires is not temperamental but institutional. Unlike them, Trump is constrained by constitutional limits that prevent him from putting flag burners in jail, punishing "fake news" outlets by taking away their broadcast licenses, or passing a law making it easier for him to win defamation suits against his critics.

If warnings about the imminent demise of a free press in America seem overwrought, it is because those restraints, rather miraculously, still have teeth after more than two centuries. Thanks to that fact, freedom of speech can easily survive the election of a thin-skinned, loudmouthed bully as president.

NEXT: "United States" -- Plural vs. Singular

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  1. “more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country,” as Jeff Flake declared in his Senate floor speech today

    No, not even close. I’m really not certain is was really particularly unusual.

    1. “more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country,” as Jeff Flake’s face declared in its Senate floor speech today

    2. I just started 7 weeks ago and I’ve gotten 2 check for a total of $2,000…this is the best decision I made in a long time! “Thank you for giving me this extraordinary opportunity to make extra money from home. go to this site for more details….. http://www.startonlinejob.com

    3. If you want your narrative, you can keep your narrative.

  2. Trump, who planned to announce “Fake News Awards” today recognizing the “most corrupt and dishonest” reporting of 2017, has clarified that he does not think all journalists are “enemies of the people”

    If this leads to the media admitting that award ceremonies are bullshit then he will be our greatest president.

  3. Mr Flake our presidents words and tweets may not help us around the world, who cares, but when our enemies use the hate filled divisive words that politicians use to describe our president, even before being president I would say that is more dangerous and just as Stalinist as anything you claim Trump to be

    1. Can you clarify what you mean?

  4. But it surely is embarrassing that the self-styled Leader of the Free World talks this way and thereby lends rhetorical cover to censorious thugs.

    But even this is not particularly unusual. The government is classically hostile to free speech. It’s the reason we have a bill of rights.

    1. Exactly, Trump talks a lot and tries to rile up his base, but Obama, Holder and company actively tried to shut certain journos like Rosen up. And with a few exceptions, hardly a peep was heard in the mainstream media. I usually like where Flake comes from, but he’s just joining the pearl clutching Olympics here.

      1. Just like Wilson,FDR and LBJ.Heroes to the left.

          1. Everybody is just like everyone else, except for you, and possibly me

      2. I’m still too disappointed about his vote regarding spying yesterday. What a bitch move on his part. It increasingly comes off that he, like McCain, aim largely for media attention and praise.

        1. He’s a grandstanding shite. Only McCain can make him look good. He seems like more of a fictional punchline told by HnR shitposters about the kind of politician Reason would constantly wave around a giant hard-on for.

          1. I say this with all due sadness. He was a good congressman from Mesa. He has seemingly been an iffy Senator at best.

  5. We can safely ignore the preposterous notion that the American citizen Donald Trump’s insulting the media is remotely inappropriate; the idea that they believe that it is the American President’s job to promote public confidence and trust in their institution, rather than their own, says more about their sick psychological relationship with the office (even as Trump’s predecessor constantly spat in their face) than it does with Trump himself.
    .
    The most genuinely problematic things Trump has said about the First Amendment by a long shot are his libel law comments, his talk of regulating Internet extremism, and indeed his “take away their licenses” comment. But, of course, his actual track record is one of exemplary pro-Constitution judges and an Internet that is shedding regulation rather than gaining it (and Democrats have certainly not distinguished themselves from him in their “anti-extremism” regulatory rhetoric). As for that “taking away their licenses” for being unfair idea, well that is truly fascistic. Let’s have a look see…

  6. ….is right that the president combines a blatant disregard for the truth with an open contempt for the press in a way that sets him apart from any of his recent predecessors.

    The way that’s different is that Trump has an open contempt for the press.

  7. Flakey made a total fool of himself before an empty Senate chamber. Less than 24 hours after being the crucial deciding vote in giving the executive branch huge new, constitutionally-exempt, warrant-less domestic surveillance powers.

    1. At least it makes sense for the Democrats. Their actions constantly betray the idea that they actually fear his allegedly insane hand in the iron glove of the state. They’d greatly prefer their own in there, of course, but they’ve had ample time to show some sign of caring enough about having a “mentally incompetent man” in charge of all this dangerous violent apparatus that they’d want to do the slightest bit of even temporary dulling of its power. Instead, the only thing they really, genuinely react to is the damage Trump threatens to cause to the apparatus.

      Dick Durbin’s sabotage, in particular, may have made their ongoing political exploitation of the DACA dreamers too obvious. Look for deepened popular cynicism when the Shitholegate smoke clears.

      1. The democrats don’t give a shit about DACA. A recent Politico/Harvard poll has DACA as 8th out of 15 issues important to democrats. So don’t expect them to actually prioritize a deal over #resist.

        https://tinyurl.com/y8hjrwam

    2. yeah, but that was mere policy, not rhetoric, which Reason now considers the most important aspect of a politician’s activity.

  8. Nobody’s buying your fake news, Jake.

  9. No libertarian would have said much different about Pres. Trump, excepting of course the faux libertarians (sheepish right-wingers in unconvincing libertarian drag).

    1. Oh great….fake comments.

    2. My stage name is Mary Rothbeard.

    3. I’ll take “faux” libertarian conservatives over “libertarians” who consciously ignore the fact that the Democratic Party is controlled and cheered on by full blown statists with zero redeeming qualities to any serious libertarian.

  10. “… that the president combines a blatant disregard for the truth with an open contempt for the press in a way that sets him apart from any of his recent predecessors.”

    Regardless of how gauche Trump may be, how has the press’s behavior over the past year or better yet over the past two or three decades not earned them open contempt?

    If the press are going to be “seekers of truth”, they can start earning that reputation by not being reckless with it in pursuit of an agenda. To not ignore the infractions of the politicians they like. To not lose their minds over the actions of the politicians they disapprove of. To not grandstand over trivia.To do enough research so as not to get more specialized knowledge outside their profession hilariously wrong.

  11. The idea that the media at any point in history have been disseminating “truth” is hilarious. Maybe Sullum should read Stossel’s piece on the SCLC which illustrates this point pretty well. So Trump points out the obvious. Scandalous! Flake just proved himself to be a radical statist when he signed off on more gutting of the 4th amendment but Reason loves this guy because grovels for the the media by calling Trump a poopy head. Sad.

    1. Ploopy. Sadder.

  12. Just look at all the H&R Useful Idiots defending the Con Man Liar-in-Chief.

    1. You see PB, unlike you, the rest of us are capable of independent thought. You don’t understand this because you are both very stupid, and also part of a hive mind of fellow dullards. Your kind can only function (barely) in an echo chamber of identical ideas. This is why you are always wrong. The rest of us actually think through things, questioning and refining our thinking.

      like Tony, you should go drink some Drano. Best thing for you really, your comments are going nowhere.

  13. I live the term “fake news”. Seems like there are very few actual journalist out there. Everyone has to be a partisan hack. In remember decades ago when you could pick up a magazine and see both sides of issues presented in a fair manner. That is rare today. Half truths and blatant omission of facts are the norm. If you don’t want to be fake news, be a real journalist.

    1. This move to extreme bias reporting started long before Trump. He’s just taking advantage of the disgust most people feel about it. I hope the calling out continues long after he’s gone. I know there are probably journalist out there that take their profession as a conveyer of factual information seriously, but that should be the norm, not the exception.

      1. I personally don’t like the term “Fake News” because, while the term is literally fairly accurate, the more accurate and historically significant description is propaganda.

        This is the thing that flies right over the head of Reason and others with TDS. The MSM is the propaganda wing of the DNC, which is also using the bureaucrats of various departments as a sort of shadow government even while they are out of representative power. This is far, far more dangerous to liberty and the Republic in general than Trump calling them out.

        1. “the DNC, which is also using the bureaucrats of various departments as a sort of shadow government even while they are out of representative power. This is far, far more dangerous to liberty and the Republic in general”

          I 100% agree. You could say Trump is a mere distraction to the real danger.

  14. Yes it is rather miraculous that constitutional restraints survive and are still relevant a couple centuries later. Perhaps this can be the inspiration for autocratic countries to adopt our Constitution? E.g. Saudi Arabia.

    1. Truly national news propagated by only a small number of sources was transitional.

      Originally it was mostly local, then for a while it was national but limited to a few sources, and now anybody can disseminate a national news feed.

      It was only that middle time that was truly dangerous to the constitution.

      Markets evolve. Isn’t it awesome!

  15. As Jesse Walker has noted, the phrase “fake news” originally referred to hoaxes but was quickly extended to sloppy reporting that was false but not consciously so and even to real news with an ideological spin. In Trump’s hands, it became an all-purpose epithet for anything negative a journalist might say about him, true or not. It is disturbing (but not surprising) to see authoritarian leaders of other countries echo this usage.

    If I recall the evolution of “fake news”, it originated with the left, Democrats in particular who were frustrated with what they saw were ‘fake’ news stories (mostly conservative– Alex Jones or Breitbart or whatever) that were confusing people and causing them to vote for Trump.

    It’s been amusing to watch how quickly the term soured once Trump co-opted it, then twisted it as described above.

    There’s a link I’ve posted here a few times from a local politician who, during this early (mostly left) concern over ‘fake news’ suggested that the government needed to get more deeply involved in the news business to, you know, keep it from being fake.

    I wonder if any lessons will be learned from Trump and government power? Given the enthusiastic, bipartisan re-authorization of domestic spying… I suspect not.

    1. That requires a degree of self-reflection that the current crop of pundits have not demonstrate themselves to be capable of

  16. “A state official in Myanmar recently said, ‘There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,’ referring to the persecuted ethnic group…”

    Autocorrect turns “Rohingya” red; seems legit.

  17. Donald Trump is a putz. A fat-headed loud-mouthed self-important thin-skinned egomaniac with the morals and the taste and the intelligence of a retarded baboon. And out of a couple hundred million people legally qualified to hold the office of president, he’s the one we picked. We get the government we deserve and this is what we deserve for not stringing a few hundred politicians up by their balls a long time ago and on a regular basis. As a wise man once said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” We seem to have an immense tolerance for being corn-holed by fat-headed loud-mouthed self-important thin-skinned egomaniacs with the morals and the taste and the intelligence of retarded baboons because we sure as hell have elected a shitload of ’em. Donald Trump’s just the one that stands out for being particularly proud of his retardation.

    1. Trump likely has an IQ that exceeds yours. As do his accomplishments. You just don’t like him. A lot of us are ok with most of what he is actually doing. While far from ideal, he is the best president we have had in DECADES.

      And ifyou are really dumb enough to think him a tyrant, why is he repealing federal regulations (literally HIS direct power) at a ratio of twelve for every new one added? Try pulling your head out of your ass sometime and really think for a change. Instead of nonsensical emotional gibbering, like a progressive.

      1. His IQ is higher than most people’s. Average is 100, so half the people that you see are below average.

    2. “Me no likey Trump! Waaaaaah!”

      1. Cool off, Queequeg. And don’t unsheath that harpoon just yet.

  18. Trump may be a lying douche bag but when he calls the press the enemy of the people he is 100% correct in the same way stuck clocks and blind squirrels sometimes are.

  19. Holy fuck, did Rachel Madcow steal Jake Sullum’s password or something? This article is a runny piece of shite. i think Trump is an egotistical blowhard, but this degree of pearl-clutching, and alignment with leftists and leftist bagmen like Jeff Flake, is unwarranted.

    As Flake noted, those tendencies are especially evident in the rhetoric that Trump borrows from and lends to dictators of the past and present.

    Rhetoric is far less important than policy, and while Trump certainly hasn’t rolled back much of the authoritarian policy he inherited from BO, it’s not like he’s breaking new ground.

    the phrase “fake news” originally referred to hoaxes but was quickly extended to sloppy reporting that was false but not consciously so and even to real news with an ideological spin. In Trump’s hands

    And of course Sullum leaves out the period in which it was an epithet in the MSM’s hands to dismiss any news source that wasn’t peddling the Russian collusion narrative. Down the memory hole, that’s Reason’s new motto it seems.

  20. The shared language is of a piece with Trump’s disquieting praise for strongmen who get things done, including Duterte, Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and the Chinese leaders responsible for the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

    Duterte and Putin are popular and were democratically elected in their countries. They are not strongmen, however much you and I may disagree with their style of governance. Angela Merkel heads a government that searches homes over milktoast Facebook posts and you don’t see a peep out of Reason, let alone the strongman epithet.

    Unlike them, Trump is constrained by constitutional limits that prevent him from putting flag burners in jail, punishing “fake news” outlets by taking away their broadcast licenses, or passing a law making it easier for him to win defamation suits against his critics.

    The constitutional limits are there because as a rule, people in positions of power would like to abuse that power. Like a few other presidents you might remember (probably all of them those of us here can remember, actually). Acting like this began with Trump is ridiculous.

    1. Putin is popular and was democratically elected in his country

      Winning popularity contests is indeed easier when all the other contestants fail to show up for some reason.

      Angela Merkel heads a government that searches homes over milktoast Facebook posts and you don’t hear a peep out of Reason

      https://reason.com/ blog/2017/06/23/ supporting-laws-banning -hate-speech-mean
      https://reason.com/ blog/2017/08/25/ germany-raids-shuts -down-far-left-websit
      https://reason.com/ blog/2017/12/01/ brickbat-the-cost-of -doing-business
      https://reason.com/ blog/2018/01/08/ brickbat-banned -in-germany

      let alone the strongman epithet

      You want to run with the big boys, you gotta play a little rougher than that.

    2. “Angela Merkel heads a government that searches homes over milktoast Facebook posts and you don’t see a peep out of Reason”

      Globalists of a feather…

      Europeans need to escape the Fourth Reich while they still can

    3. Not strongmen, only hypocritical murderers.

  21. In summary, of course Trump would like to stomp all opposition out of his way to “get things done” as he would like to see them done. So would Obama, Bush I & II, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, etc etc etc. And nearly every politician in Washington today, indeed nearly every politician in every state or local seat of government in the nation. Trump’s clumsiness and lack of filter actually make him less dangerous than a smooth talker like Obama and the snakes in the grass in his administration.

  22. Damn. Some people just have a tough time accepting their 15 minutes are over.

    1. Exactly!

  23. Trump, the most successful propagator of skepticism of fact in autocratic regimes…. ever. MAG fucking A.

  24. Yet another demonstration that Cuckservatives are worse than useless
    They can’t even identify their enemies, and throw a hissy fit when someone does

  25. But it surely is embarrassing that the self-styled Leader of the Free World talks this way and thereby lends rhetorical cover to censorious thugs.

    Try to get an less than hysterical article on global warming published, or some other non-PC observation on gender, race, nationalism, etc…

    Our previous President was all in on giving rhetorical cover for censoring that sort of thing. Every other President does similar things. They all have agendas, and they all use the power of the podium to push them in whatever way they can.

    Trump is unique only in that he’s directly attacking the entrenched media that feels they are entitled to presidential cover.

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