The Donald Trump administration has publicly voiced its intention to deconstruct the administrative state. It has relegated the vast American media industry to the league of enemies.
Most significantly, it has taken tangible steps to restrict the press' ability to effectively inform the public on the presidency — here and abroad.
All Americans have a vested interest in the success of every administration. But if we cannot keep tabs on the executive branch, how dangerous are the political implications?
“If democratic backsliding were to occur in the United States, it would not take the form of a coup d’etat; there would be no declaration of martial law or imposition of single-party rule,” write Robert Mickey, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Ahmad Way in their Foreign Affairs essay titled “Is America Still Safe for Democracy?”
“The experience of most contemporary autocracies suggests it would take place through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps, most of which are legal, and many of which appear innocuous. Taken together, however, they would tilt the playing field in favor of the ruling party.”
The Trump administration has already take been a number of these “incremental steps,” such as curtailing civil liberties, degrading an independent judiciary and limiting the press' access to the White House.
For example, compared to the same period last year, detentions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are up 40%. President Trump assured critics that ICE would focus on illegal immigrants with criminal records. In fact, about 25% of those detained to date have no criminal records, which does not include those detained with simple traffic violations.
It might not be martial law, but many of the families dealing with imminent detention and deportation sense the beginnings of authoritarian rule.
Moreover, pairing President Trump’s admiration for strongmen and dictators, including Putin, Erdogan, Duterte and the “smart-cookie” Kim Jong Un, with
crucial limitations imposed on the media and civil rights, a frightening pattern emerges.
For a democracy, any effort to silence a free press is troubling.
Yet the White House press office under President Trump has faced a violent push back from the press — or maybe it’s the other way around. The interaction between the press and the West Wing has been less than cordial. In many instances, it has become aggressively confrontational.
Back in February, barely a month after inauguration, the Trump White House barred various reporters from attending an off-camera press briefing. On his first foreign trip, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took only one reporter, from a conservative publication, the Independent Journal Review, on his plane — breaking with decades of practice.
In Saudi Arabia, Tillerson held a press conference without any American press present to ask questions, reminiscent of Trump's decision to only allow Russia's TASS to cover his meeting with high-level Russian ministers in the Oval Office.
In the most stark undercutting of press access to the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer is not expected to hold daily on-camera briefings when the President returns from his foreign trip.
Without the tapes of briefings, the White House will have an easier time disputing reporting of whatever off-camera briefings actually happen. They may even, taking this to the extreme, be able to tweak transcripts before releasing them to the public.
"Little-noticed, incremental steps" are becoming big, commonplace fears over the future of American democracy.