Every American president, from Washington to Trump, has lost sleep over, complained about, and been furious with, the news media. While the language of the times has changed, presidential declamations regarding the Fourth Estate have been a constant over the years, only varying in intensity as particular POTUS outrages rose and fell.
And of course, it is no secret that President Trump finds great fault with much of the American news media. With the exception (usually) of Fox News, Mr. Trump has castigated the press corps in terms generally not seen in prior administrations, culminating with the declaration that the press is the enemy of the people. The press seems most intent on reporting those stories that Mr. Trump would most earnestly wish they did not, all the while creating what he has declared to be “fake news” with abandon.
It may not come as a shock, therefore, that the Trump Administration is, according to inside sources, considering four separate but related legislative proposals that could simultaneously address his campaign promises regarding illegal aliens in the United States while also curbing what his administration considers reckless press behavior.
The first three legislative proposals, dealing with illegal aliens, has several specific proposals the President feels will simultaneously decrease the number of illegal aliens in the country, while also boosting the President’s ability to deal with the current and any future alien issues, and to keep us safe. Within these three proposed laws are provisions that would make the path to citizenship more challenging, and therefore would help ensure that only the very best immigrants are allowed to become citizens. For example, the legislation would increase from five to fourteen years the period necessary for an alien to become a full US citizen with full voting rights. Therefore aliens with little true interest in becoming true and good Americans would be removed, while those with the character and the quality we want, will stay for the long haul.
A second proposal would address head on the challenge of dealing with potentially harmful aliens being allowed to live in the US almost indefinitely during immigration hearings on their status. This new law would give the President the power to label aliens from countries, “at war” with the United States, as “enemy aliens” who could then be promptly deported. Thus a process that once took months or years could be shortened to perhaps days, while increasing the President’s power to keep us safe.
Likely the most controversial of the four proposed laws would give President Trump an important new power to deal with the “fake news” phenomena. In the 21st Century, traditional news media outlets have morphed into a huge number of news operations, from social media to blogs to internet radio and more. Thus, the traditional limits placed on media in the past – largely self-regulated commitments to truth and balance – are nearly all gone. Anyone with a computer and an opinion can create the impression of being a news source with no responsibility to the truth, with nary a consequence for false and harmful reporting. Thus, today all too many “news” outlets are spreading what might be called sedition rather than beneficial information. Therefore, the final proposed law attempts to return to the news media that which is lost – a consequence for dishonesty.
The proposal would make it illegal to write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against either the hatred of the people of the United States, or to stir up sedition, or to excite unlawful combinations against the government, or to resist it, or to aid or encourage hostile designs of foreign nations.
While recognizing the importance of a free press, President Trump hopes that this new legislation will impose on the press that which it self-imposed for generations – a commitment and obligation to the truth. Clearly, he argues, the modern press cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and such a failure is far too dangerous to ignore in an era of instant communications.
Taken as a whole, with these four legislative proposals, President Trump hopes to take care of the preverbal two birds with one stone – a reduction in the number of illegal aliens while also ensuring an increase in the quality and “wholesomeness” of those immigrants allowed in, while also returning the Press to an era of integrity, fairness, and honesty.
So what do you think? Sound good?
I am guessing, gentle reader, that as you read the previous paragraphs you found yourself in either agreement that the time has come to get tough on the issues of illegal aliens and press sedition, or you were concerned that these proposed laws were not the answer. And perhaps, as you perused, you heard an echo from the past?
I hope so, because, of course, there are no such proposed laws. The Trump Administration has most certainly shown a distain for the press, and the President did, in fact, once tweet that the press was the enemy of the American people. So it almost makes a bit of sense that these “new” laws might be considered by those at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There is something that seems fitting in these laws and our President’s point of view.
These laws are not, however, new. They come from one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history. The four laws I described above are what were known as the “Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.” These laws, passed by the Congress and signed by President Adams, sought to reduce the influence of Thomas Jefferson’s political wing, and those that admired the French. The Acts were purely a political power grab – an effort to keep the Federalists in power while keeping Mr. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans at bay. Some fourteen individuals would be charged under the Acts and a couple ended up in jail, before common sense prevailed. Since that time, our nation has accepted that we want immigrants (though, of course, within a proper legal framework) to come to our nation, and we definitely don’t want any one person, a president or other, to have the power to declare by fiat a person to be an enemy of the state. And it is most certainly an American value that criticism of the government is a deeply protected right.
But in this hyper-partisan time, when disagreement is often declaimed to be un-American, I worry that some readers might have supported the powers I proposed to give President Trump in the 21st Century. Making it harder to become a citizen and making it easier to punish “bad” media members might sound appealing to those who feel themselves oppressed. But please consider the implications to your own freedom should those you oppose achieve high office while vested with such powers.
It is normal and proper to become frustrated with the media, be you the POTUS or a fry cook. But please consider carefully the full implications of any reductions in press freedom. Mr. Putin, an authoritarian leader with powers comparable to those described above, may claim a popular mandate, but without a free press one can never truly know. Our current president has, in my view, far too often expressed an admiration if not an affinity for Putin. I find this very troubling, and I urge the reader to consider the implications of a US President with such powers.
While the alien and sedition acts might seem a fitting tool for 2017 to some, I hope to most it offers a moment of pause and a deep reflection on the implications of too-powerful a president. The echoes of history can teach us a great deal. A clear lesson would seem to be that freedom is the value most worth defending. And without a free press we may be only a few steps away from a Putin in the White House.
(This essay first appeared on ColoradoPolitics.com)