On the first stop of his “thank you” tour in Ohio Thursday, president-elect Donald Trump hit replay on several of his campaign tropes.
Among the crowd pleasers, he heckled the “crooked media,” prompting boos from the audience, and reiterated his pledge to criminalize flag burning.
And he’s not even president yet. More than a month and a half away from Inauguration Day, Trump’s only discipline seems to be making good on bad faith. His attacks both on the media and on those who, rather rarely, burn an American flag, are fundamentally assaults on the Constitution and the First Amendment.
Do Trump followers really not care about these founding documents and their bearing on all the freedoms we take for granted? Or, could they really not know any better?
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Most disturbing is the absence of objections from the right. Where are the Republicans when the leader of their party speaks so dismissively toward our principles of freedom and the journalists, many of whom they know personally, who practice in good faith the spirit of the law?
We the people believe in free speech and a free press not so that we can burn flags but so that we can expose government corruption, protest oppression and express opinions that others may find disagreeable without fear of repercussion.
As offensive as flag burning is to patriotic Americans, it can also be an act of patriotism, a proposition I offer as argument not endorsement. If you love your country and fear that it’s being led toward tyranny, you might well burn a flag to demonstrate such concerns. To the extent that the flag is a symbol of freedom, burning it is also a symbolic act. I would argue that many if not most veterans, including those in my family, fought, suffered and died for the right of all Americans to speak freely.
Indeed, it is the objectionable expression that is the true test of the strength of our freedoms. We don’t need a First Amendment to protect get well cards or love letters. We don’t need it to protect Christmas carols. But should someone challenge the latter, given its religious content, wouldn’t many of those Ohioans cheering Trump’s demagogic illogic be grateful that free speech protects their right to stroll the streets singing songs of praise?
Understanding the crucial importance of free speech and a free press to all other freedoms compelled the Supreme Court to rule that even flag burning is protected. And this is why Trump, a man who professes to love freedom and has presented himself as the best person to lead the free world, should be roundly condemned for suggesting that anyone who burns a flag should be punished by imprisonment or even loss of citizenship.
Or why his persistent attacks on the media, threatening to restrict press freedom, are so misplaced, potentially dangerous and, not least, impossible for him to do constitutionally. Either Trump knows this, which makes his crowd-baiting not only offensive but irresponsible, or he’s unfamiliar with the Constitution, the defense of which is one of the primary functions of the presidency.
As to the crooked media, Trump’s gibes are patently ludicrous. Was he over-covered? Perhaps, but he was early on the Republican frontrunner and subsequently the nominee. The media could hardly ignore him, much as many of us would have liked to. Yes, some members of the media are biased, but not most, and they’re usually drummed out through peer review.
It should be obvious that without the so-called mainstream media, especially newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, no one would know anything that has any basis in objective fact — and yes there is such a thing. We will rue the day we forgot that newsgathering is a profession with demanding standards regarding performance and ethics. Notwithstanding the billion-member global newsroom, it’s nice to have smart, well-educated, experienced reporters and editors to pluck the pearls from the muck.
Therefore, the highest service the president of the United States could perform would be to actively engage the media in the national interest of nurturing an informed populace, without which a democratic Republic cannot long survive.
To do otherwise is the first act of the dictator.