Can a democracy elect a dictator?

opinion February 22, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

Picture Prime Minister Prayut slamming major Thai and international news outlets as “enemies of the people”.



Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. It’s difficult to imagine that insult on the lips of even someone who came to power leading a military coup. Political correctness is mandatory in today’s world, whether you are an elected or a self-installed leader.

But cue Donald Trump and the rulebook has been turned to confetti. The new president got busy blowing political correctness sky high on his first day in the White House. The world might take it for granted that the mass media are an integral part of democracy, but not The Donald. Here’s one of his latest tweets: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American People!”

“Tyrant!” yelled the BBC in response to Trump’s remark. “At a different time, in another country, it was effectively a death sentence,” it said. “Being branded an ‘enemy of the people’ by the likes of Stalin or Mao brought at best suspicion and stigma, at worst hard labour or death.” 

David Axelrod, a former adviser to president Obama, pointed out that “Every president is irritated by the news media. No other president would have described the media as ‘the enemy of the people’.”

It’s equally disturbing whether Trump is right or wrong. On the one hand, if his “fake news” claim is true, the media he mentioned are a decaying pillar of democracy that will do the world no good. But if he’s firing false accusations, what does that say about the system that placed this man in the world’s most powerful seat?

The showdown between Trump and the media is intriguing, not least because it features the two most formidable forces of democracy. He’s wielding a fresh popular mandate, while the other side is armed with a longstanding public duty to counterbalance precisely people like him. Trump has triggered one controversy after another since taking the White House, but always stayed within the limits of democratic principles. But his approach to the media has now broken that boundary.  

In other words, you can build a wall at the border, sack diplomats, impose immigration restrictions and place your trusted allies in important jobs. Those actions might be controversial, but they are legal in a democracy. However, democratic norms dictate that those actions be examined and critiqued thoroughly, and this is where the mass media come in.

Hence something seems to have gone seriously wrong with American democracy. Either the country is being led by a dictator who doesn’t accept, recognise or understand the role of the media, or the corrupt Fourth Estate is undermining the very essence of America along with a system embraced by much of the world.

Could it be that the media are just doing their job and Trump is just misunderstanding them? Is it possible that the US political system remains healthy but for “honest mistakes” on both sides?

The answer is yes – but it’s unlikely. So far, this doesn’t look like the sort of misunderstanding that occurs between the couple in a romantic comedy. 

What’s happening appears to be a vendetta, with both sides hell-bent on destroying each other. Trump himself summed up that sentiment recently, declaring to a cheering crowd: “When the media lie to people I will never let them get away with it.”

Much of the feud has revolved around suspicion, justified or not, that Trump won the election thanks to Russia’s covert hi-tech interference. The US media have kept on digging into the matter, and Trump is angry either because they are on the right track or because he is innocent and thus convinced that journalists are out to bring him down after their darling, Hillary Clinton, was embarrassed at the polls.

Calling Trump a tyrant, though, flies in the face of his obvious need for love. 

Tyrants rule in a climate of fear. For now, Trump inspires hatred among his opponents rather than fear, with those he singles out for attack almost seeming to relish the challenge. 

CNN, for example, has used his criticism of the network as an effective tool to advertise its journalistic virtues. Meanwhile any reporter publicly chided by the president is eager to post the clip online.

Trump has gone to great lengths to cut out the media and connect with his supporters directly, even becoming the first president to hold a campaign-style rally. It shows he needs his fans’ love to fall back on. Tyrants do the same by activating the fear factor to mobilise robotic fist-pumpers, but Trump’s crowds radiate genuine adulation.

Yet so did political rallies in Germany back in the 1930s and ’40s. And it helps to recall that Adolf Hitler also rose to power through an election. Looking back at history, some may say Trump is well on his way to becoming a dictator. Demonising critics is how it all begins, they observe. But Trump has been demonised himself, albeit in a more subtle manner.

All in all, it’s eerie, isn’t it? And so far we haven’t even mentioned the most fearsome possibility, unlikely but not implausible – that both Trump and the media are enemies of the people.