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Dictators always start by killing the free press

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He’s still at it, calling everything he doesn’t like “fake news” and claiming that he, himself, is the only trustworthy source of information in the United States. Here he was the other day, on twitter: Only the Fake News Media and Trump enemies want me to stop using Social Media (110 million people). Only way for me to get the truth out!” And here: “I love reading about all of the ‘geniuses’ who were so instrumental in my election success. Problem is, most don’t exist. #Fake News! MAGA.”

Fascists often disparage real journalism in order to hoodwink a credulous public. There was once a man, Carl Severing, who in the early 1930s was Minister of the Interior in Weimar Germany. This was the period when Hitler was rapidly consolidating power, and while Severing was not a Nazi, his rightwing policies helped pave the way for Hitler’s takeover, in 1933. Severing cracked down on the free press; one of his more famous dictums was, “Press freedom has become press license. We cannot permit demagogues to inflame the masses any further.”

That was the beginning. Hitler seized power on Jan. 30, 1933, and almost immediately set out plans that would give the Nazis total power over all newspapers.”  His propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, oversaw the Reich Press Law (Oct. 4, 1933), which allowed “the Propaganda Ministry, through its Reich Press Chamber, [to] take over the Reich Association of the German Press, the organization which regulates the profession.”

Said Goebbels, in words that might have been tweeted by Donald Trump, Not everyone has the right to write for the public. That right has to be earned through moral and patriotic qualifications…the concept of freedom of opinion is under lively discussion. Indeed, the people’s belief in it everywhere has become shaken… bounds must be set to freedom of thought and freedom of opinion at the point where these begin to conflict with the interests of the nation as a whole.”

He did not use the words “fake news,” but Goebbels’ (and Hitler’s) animosity toward a free press had significant overlaps with Trump’s. Would-be dictators hate it when enterprising journalists crack through their veils of secrecy and report on their misdeeds and crimes. Indeed, no tyranny in history has ever tolerated a free press, or has survived unfettered scrutiny.

Muzzling the press, however, can work only if a large segment of the public agrees with the would-be dictator that “bounds” really do need to be set. In the Germany of the early 1930s, this situation existed: millions of Germans blamed the newspapers (and Jews, which owned many of them) for their woes: unemployment, inflation, and the disrespect with which they felt they were treated by the victors of World War I.

In today’s America, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are similarly resentful of what they call the “libtard” media: CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets. They cannot stand the fact that their hero, Trump, is having his every move closely watched and reported. It enrages them that he cannot do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to whomever he wants, without this disreputable Fourth Estate hounding him. If you tell them that freedom of journalism is a bedrock principle of western democracy, they laugh; they do not want democracy, they want an autocracy of the right, and a religiously-oriented one, at that. They want an authoritarian who will ram through his policies without restraint. They want the loyal opposition silenced. They cannot tolerate a media that reports, investigates, exposes lies and corruption, nor can they tolerate an independent counsel who is tasked with getting to the bottom of the disturbing facts unearthed by enterprising reporters. Hitler led his country, and most of Europe and the world, to destruction by first persuading people that a free press was a threat. Trump is following exactly the same playbook. His epitaph might well be Severing’s dictat: “Press freedom has become press license.”

P.S. Here’s some real fake news: Pence’s tweet from July 25: “Proud to break Senate tie to open debate to rescue Americans from failed Obamacare. Thanks to @POTUS, this is beginning of end of Obamacare.”

Didn’t exactly work out that way, did it, Mr. Vice President?

 

 

 

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