I struggle to write anything in these few days before the Trump presidency begins. I’m afraid for the women who will march in Washington, as I safely march in Toronto and as so many others will march in 370 cities around the world. Tyranny must always be resisted, but such resistance always ends in blood. Could this be the fuse that lights Trump’s Reichstag fire? Surely it won’t take much.
Two other writers offer better insight, so here they are. This is an eloquent New Yorkerpiece by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, calling on people to resist. And while he inexplicably fails to mention Trump’s misogyny in his analysis, Jonathan Kirshner’s America, America is chillingly apropos.
In a little over a week, Donald Trump takes the oath of office. Yesterday, during a bizarre press conference, there were clear signs that office may slide straight into kleptocracy. There will be no divestment or blind trusts for Trump, who does not even believe that conflict of interest applies to him. Trump announced that his sons would run his business, then handed the mic to a lawyer to try to explain this weird arrangement that breaks tradition with every other modern American presidency. The director of the US office of government ethics promptly denounced it as “wholly inadequate,” but his protestation hardly matters. No one can force Trump to do the right thing. The overriding message from his press conference was that no one can force him to do anything. I use the term press conference loosely. It felt more like a twisted game show, complete with a laugh-track provided by paid Trump staffers who whooped it up for his occasional sneering joke, and clapped on cue throughout the script.
As for press freedom during the Trump administration, the worrying anti-press trend intensified before the presser even began, with Trump’s soon-to-be press secretary Sean Spicer and Mike Pence scolding the media for daring to print a story. Trump’s denunciation of BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage” and his statement “I think they are going to suffer the consequences,” should scare the hell out of everyone, regardless of whether you support or denounce BuzzFeed’s decision to print the unverified 35-pages of allegations against Trump. The president-elect’s refusal to take a question from CNN’s senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta and his denunciation of CNN as “fake news” tells us everything we need to know about his continued disdain for a free press.
So, the question remains, now what? Journalists need to stand together in the face of this threat to press freedom. If a reporter is denied the right to ask a question simply because the president doesn’t like his news organization, then the next reporter should ask the same question, and so should the next, and the next, all down the line until the question is answered, or, more likely, until the president storms out in a huff.
Many journalists will disagree with this strategy. What about getting the story? What about the competitive nature of news? So what if Jim Acosta is blackballed—too bad for him, but I don’t work for CNN. I don’t work for BuzzFeed.
But this isn’t business as usual for journalists or anyone else. This isn’t just another four years with another president. To be effective, we have to work together more closely. The wholly competitive news model isn’t the only model, as the level of international press cooperation on the Panama Papers showed us—though many of those journalists are now under threat. And what story, exactly, can any journalist hope to get from a Trump press conference? Any substantive reporting will doubtless take place far from the White House briefing room. How many official briefings can we expect from this president? Yesterday was his first press conference since July. As presidents elect, NPR reports that Barack Obama met with the press 18 times and George W. Bush spoke to them officially 11 times. Based on his behaviour to date, there is no reason to expect regular press access to this president and every reason to believe that Trump’s antagonism towards journalists will continue after January 20.
Standing up for press freedom also means journalists standing up for each other.
Hope. It’s hard to hang onto right now, but what’s the alternative? That was the gist of Michelle Obama’s message in an interview with Oprah a few weeks before Christmas. Over the holidays, I tried to hide from the gloom, but wasn’t strong enough to eschew my news feed entirely. In a weak moment I clicked on a New Yorker piece by Eric Schlosser—World War Three by Mistake. It threw me back to a childhood terror I had almost forgotten.
When I was about 14 and shortly after one of the times the world, according to Schlosser, nearly went thermonuclear by accident, I had a reoccurring nightmare. I dreamt about the beginning of the end. Night after night, I watched mushroom clouds bloom in the distance. I never woke up soon enough, and always with my heart still hammering and my body chilled, pooled in cold sweat. It is still the most terrifying dream I have ever had.
That a teenager would suffer from an underlying angst about the end of time in the early 1980s is hardly surprising. I’m just grateful that back then, Ativan weren’t yet the pharmacological equivalent of Smarties. Despite the release of Ordinary People, child psychology was still rather frowned upon as a silly indulgence of the neurotic and the obscenely rich. So when I finally told my father about what troubled me, instead of bundling me off to therapy, he simply told me not to worry. He was also genuinely surprised that I would fret at all about that sort of thing. If the world didn’t end with Hitler, or later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he reasoned, then it sure as hell wasn’t going to end now. And he turned back to his newspaper.
My father was born in 1935 in Chatham, Kent. His childhood included the terror of buzz bombs and blackouts. This lends English people of his generation a reassuring sang-froid. Think Michael Caine or Judi Dench. At least, they are reassuring to me. So I listened to him, and the dreams, though they continued, no longer consumed my waking hours with a clutching fear the way they once had.
The dreams are back. I am resisting the grown-up allure of Ativan, and choose instead to find my inner fulcrum, somewhere between Chicken Little and Happy the Dwarf. So, along with Paul Krugman’s depressing 2017 message America Becomes a Stan, I also take heart in Rebecca Solnit’s belief that Trump will be resisted. Even as Trump blithely tweets about ICBMs as though he and Kim Jong Un were two 12-year-olds sharing insults across a Catan board, I think about the upcoming Women’s March on Washington, and how it could breathe new life into American feminism. I am reassured by the GOP failure to eliminate the ethics office. I am trying hard for hope.
On the first day of 2017, Kim and I decided to do something fun together, something simple. We went to the movies to see Rogue One. We were both unexpectedly moved by the last line, eerily delivered by a CGI-rendered Princess Leia, five days after Carrie Fisher’s death.