Cowardice and Freedom

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, accompanied by White House strategist Stephen Bannon, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Ph... White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, accompanied by White House strategist Stephen Bannon, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) MORE LESS
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You’ve probably seen that today the White House held a daily gaggle (an informal, off-camera Q&A) in which only a few select news outlets – including Breitbart, The Washington Times and One America Network – were allowed to attend. CNN, NYT, LAT, Politico and apparently others were barred. In other words, two shlock ‘news’ outlets and one highly conservative but still legitimate news organization. The places breaking the unwelcome Trump/Russia stories are blocked.

CNN is in high dudgeon over this, as are other outlets, which is entirely understandable. But I’d like to make a basic point about how we should see this, how journalists and news organizations should treat this. I think it is both more accurate and more productive to see this as cowardice rather than some sacrilege against journalism.

Don’t get me wrong. As I wrote a month or so ago in a similar context, it is far preferable to have a President and a White House who believe in democratic and American values. But we don’t. It is best to recognize that fact and act accordingly. Whining is never a good look for journalists, for myriad reasons. Not least of which is that it plays into all the tools that authoritarians mobilize against a free press and American values. As I also wrote in that post, the answer to attacks on journalism is always more journalism. The most consequential reporting being done right now isn’t happening in the briefings. It’s happening with the ‘anonymous sources’ that President Trump says need to stand before him for retribution.

Authoritarianism is inimical to American political culture. It is a sometimes visitor, an annoying relative. But it has never been a welcome visitor or an owner of the national home. This doesn’t mean that our history is unblemished. Far from it. To pick only one of the most glaring examples, even after emancipation, for almost a century the American South maintained a political system of democracy for whites and terror-enforced near-rightslessness for blacks. But that doesn’t change the continuities of political culture for whites which non-whites and other minority groups have fought for decades and centuries to enter on equal terms. We know what our culture and traditions are. This isn’t it.

Authoritarians always portray attacks on a free press as a sign of strength when in fact it’s sign of cowardice and weakness. Perhaps another way to put it is that weakness and strength have a particular meaning for free people. Fear of free people or violence against their mores is weakness. In our tradition if you fear free society, if you run to toadying sycophants to avoid being challenged, or demand followers toast your every action with superlatives, you’re a coward. You’re weak. You lack the strength to lead. This isn’t Russia. It’s not Horthy’s Hungary. This is America.

This isn’t surprising. We got a look yesterday at the mind and driver behind Trumpism, Steve Bannon. Bannon pitches himself as a champion of American ‘nationalism’, but it is a peculiar nationalism which takes most of its ideas and examples from the toxic and blooded authoritarians of 1930s-era Central and Eastern Europe. It’s no accident that we also learned today that Bannon’s ‘nationalist’ intellectual, Sebastian Gorka, was actually involved in forming a far-right political party in Hungary with known anti-Semites as recently as the aughts. So the guy who is going to give us American nationalism was born in Britain, set up shop as a rightist nationalist in Hungary before deciding to show up in America and become a citizen. Are we even sure we’re the last stop on his global tour?

As I wrote over the weekend, we’re in an odd period. The American experiment is a kind of de facto exile, perhaps an internal exile, but an exile still. The good news is that the majority doesn’t support Trumpism. But Trumpism has taken possession of the key powers of the state. It will require being aggressively American to beat back Bannon’s thuggish practices and contempt for the habits of free people.

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