Three Men and a Body: Media in the Age of the Strongman

By David M. Crane 

(Jurist | Oct. 31, 2018)  The blaming of attempted bombings of prominent democratic leaders and opponents of President Trump on a vindictive press by him at a public rally casts a dark shadow over a bleak landscape where once the freedom of the press was a corner stone of our democracy.  Declaring the press in the United States an “enemy of the people” rings reminiscent of attacks on the press in Germany of the 1930’s.

“Though dictators throughout history attack and then silence a critical press, the 21st century has seen the rise of the strongman, particularly in the past few years and with it more direct and violent attempts to muzzle the media.”

Around the world, strongmen have been attacking the concept of freedom of the press, as well as members of the press themselves. Putin has blatantly singled out members of the Russian press critical of his policies and shot them, poisoned them, run them over, and even thrown them off buildings.

Recently the direction by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to kill Washington Post reporter and commentator Jamal Khashoggi is a further attack on members of the media who criticize a strongman. The crisis that followed quickly drew in three men, all arrogant and disdainful of the law, hypocritically mouthing words they did not believe in order to quell the outrage, to support each other, or to gain political advantage. Those men are MBS, Erdogan, and Trump.

Though dictators throughout history attack and then silence a critical press, the 21st century has seen the rise of the strongman, particularly in the past few years and with it more direct and violent attempts to muzzle the media. With a surprising rapidity, the stepping forward of nationalistic politicians onto the world stage where they used to dwell on the fringes of society, mainly in the political shadows, has caught liberal democracies off guard. Such thinking seemed to be behind us, not any longer.

The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi is indicative of this new inward thinking nationalism and it’s hatred of the press not seen since the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Using terms such as fake news as a shield; the likes of Trump, Putin, Li, Erdogan, Duterte, MBS, among other strongmen, have begun to move societies against the media. With chants led by the President of the United States, “CNN Sucks!” augers poorly for American society and the world as a whole.

The loss of moral leadership by the United States under Donald Trump has enabled the increased pressure and attacks on a critical press. These various strongmen feel that being held accountable is no longer a viable threat to their political position at home or abroad. Essentially the rule of law, so essential to the maintenance of international peace and security, is no longer a deterrent.

The American President is pushing away legal, diplomatic, and political norms that have been cornerstones to that peace and security since 1945. The threat of pulling out of key geopolitical organizations and treaties such as the World BankWorld Trade Organization, the INF treaty, even NATO, have turned the early 21st century into a kaleidoscopic world where nothing matters and old friendships and allies are declared threats. We tend to forget Trump calling Canada, Canada, a national security threat.

Declaring oneself a nationalist in a global economy and international community sounds like a certain German chancellor in the 1930’s who founded and came to power with a nationalist political party. That chancellor did two things very quickly on seizing power, go after a vulnerable minority blaming them for the nation’s problems and attacking and muzzling the German press. Dictators do this as a matter of course. Stalin, Mussolini and Mao Tse Tung used the same tactics …

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Now retired from teaching at Syracuse University College of Law, David M. Crane is an INSCT Research & Practice Associate.

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