President Trump is arrogant, crass, and reckless. Trump is not, however, a mass-murdering maniac. But that won’t stop retiring Sen. Jeff Flake from comparing the current president to the most evil man of the 20th century.
Soon, the Arizona Republican will speak on the Senate floor to decry White House rhetoric about fake news. In particular and according to public excerpts, Flake plans to chastise Trump for calling the free press the enemy of the people, “words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies.”
And while Flake will retire at the end of the year, that rhetoric makes one wonder if his speech writers have taken off early, dumping those responsibilities onto an intern. The excerpts read like a copied-and-pasted rant from Reddit. More than embarrassing, the whole thing is disrespectful to the dead and detrimental to democracy.
Expect the speech to be interpreted as another sign that our institutions are cracking under the weight of a leader who is somehow simultaneously the most cunning tyrant and the greatest idiot ever to become president. But the opposite is true and Flake knows it. The judiciary has checked Trump. The legislature has tempered Trump. The re-energized press has dominated Trump. If anything, the first year of the first term of the 45th president is a great testament to the miracle of constitutionally divided government. The checks are balancing and the system is working.
Has this transformed Trump into a model first citizen? Hardly. Shooting from the hip, the bloviating executive has struck his own foot again and again and again. But the worst Trump can do is call journalists names on Twitter — a small professional price to pay for an administration that leaks so vociferously as to give the public one of the most transparent views of the West Wing in modern history.
Of course, no president should say nasty things about the press. But no reporter should be complaining.
Journalism is thriving. Nowhere is this more evident than at the New York Times. As Jack Shafer recently pointed out, that paper expected fewer than a million digital subscribers after the general election. It has exploded to 2.5 million instead.
Those numbers are the result of a transparent spectacle. Trump hasn’t signed any executive orders to muzzle the press. Instead, he has laid bare all his mistakes and inadequacies to journalists in the last 12 months. Just recently, the president threw open immigration negotiations to the cameras an act so transparent even his critics had to praise.
Comparing American journalism to its moldering Soviet counterpart then is absolutely laughable. There are no licenses required. No censors. No mandatory propaganda. The president hasn’t hauled a single reporter onto Fifth Avenue and shot them, no matter how much he might want to. In short, criticism is louder and journalism healthier than ever.
Again, does this mean Trump doesn’t present a danger? Not at all. His administration has indeed undermined the institution of the free press. Another more calculating president could expand on that blueprint for more sinister ends in the future. But should that happen, any aspiring tyrant would confront a beefed-up press corps that’s only grown stronger during Trump’s tenure.
What the nation can’t count on is Flake. Rather than curbing the excesses of this administration or preparing to sift out principles from the eventual wreckage, the conservative senator is calling it quits. Sadly, his very good work to cut waste and to reduce the size of government won’t be remembered. What will remain is a silly speech about how our current bumbling president is somehow morally like Stalin — a very real tyrant who starved entire nations, and murdered more than 20 million civilians.