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Dictating the First Amendment 

“The wreckage is almost unimaginable’’

OPINION

By Kurt Loft


On March 11, 1933, armed Nazi stormtroopers invaded the offices of the Frankfurt Zeitung, among the most respected and independent of more than 4,700 newspapers in Germany. The intruders’ demand was straightforward: Tow the line of our leader – the authoritarian Adolf Hitler − or you will cease to exist.


The editorial board bowed to the Propaganda Ministry, and the paper was bought by a large Nazi-backed chemical corporation, I.G. Farben, which could not afford bad public relations. By 1944, the number of German newspapers declined to about 975, their content controlled by what the Gestapo called “the uniformity of the press.’’


This is, of course, an extreme example of the suppression of free speech in a culturally advanced country, although it continues throughout the world today. The exchange of ideas in the media – print, radio, television, visual arts, internet – is central to our First Amendment and an informed public. As we all know, our Constitution protects freedom of ideas, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. To dismantle this privilege would invite anarchy.


The historical parallel is important, as these uncomfortable markers teach us how to prepare for and manage their return. So, when a presidential candidate goes on the record to say he will mold the First Amendment to fit a hostile personal agenda, we need to take note. 


Donald Trump is saying this. He will bring in the loyalist Kash Patel, who is expected to serve in a senior national security role if his mentor regains the White House. Patel, who in 2022 became a  member of the board of the company that owns Trump’s Truth Social media platform, spoke on a podcast hosted by Stephen Bannon, the former Trump strategist who was convicted on two counts of contempt of Congress. 


Patel did not mince words: He would target journalists for prosecution if they don’t conform to certain requirements.


“We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media,” he said. “Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections — we’re going to come after you.’’



Patel’s threats against the media echo warnings from Trump himself, who accuses the press of “country threatening treason.’’ On Truth Social, he said “I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events.’’ 


Where Trump once depended on the media to feed his celebrity, he now has spiraled into paranoia and disregard for the First Amendment, notes the New York Times: “Despite Mr. Trump’s obsession with news coverage and his need to stay in the headlines dating back to the 1980s, he has grown increasingly threatening toward the press and particularly since his political campaigns began in 2015.’’


Many believe the guardrails of democracy will prevent Trump, if again elected to the highest office in the nation, from doing too much damage. But those safeguards have already been severely tested, notes former republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, who writes about “sleepwalking into dictatorship’’ in her new book, Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning.


“Trump has told us that he thinks the Constitution can and should be suspended, when necessary, that what happened on Jan. 6 was justified, and that in a second Trump presidency he would seek retribution,” she writes. “The assumption that our institutions will protect themselves is purely wishful thinking by people who prefer to look the other way.”

 

All of this is painful to realize considering the power plays involved, noted Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, during an interview on ABC’s The View. Unlike most would-be authoritarians, she said, Trump puts his cards on the table for all to see.


His deck includes changing libel laws so his administration could more easily sue journalists; antagonizing and threatening reporters so they fear for their safety; and maintaining a diet of propaganda and fascist rhetoric to strengthen his bias among an uncritical − and sycophantic – horde of followers.


"Trump is telling us what he intends to do,’’ Clinton said. “Take him at his word. The man means to throw people in jail who disagree with him, shut down legitimate press outlets, do what he can to undermine the rule of law and our country's values … the wreckage is almost unimaginable."



















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