Welcome to the United States of Authoritarianism. Don’t ask too many questions and don’t protest or you too might be fired, fined or thrown in jail.
Since the election of President Trump, an alarming number of events have formed a pattern that mimics the early stages of an authoritarian regime. It is corroding the ability of citizens to learn what their state and federal governments are doing and to get public officials to listen and respond to their concerns.
On Tuesday, a day after former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified on Capitol Hill as to the reason Trump fired her, a smaller but no less important spectacle occurred in West Virginia. Veteran journalist Daniel Heyman was arrested for asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question about the recent health care bill. As Price walked with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway through the state capitol building, Public News Service reporter Heyman asked Price whether the most recent health care bill considered domestic violence a pre-existing condition. Heyman held his phone up to record Price’s answer. Price said nothing. So Heyman repeated the question.
An officer pulled Heyman to the side, handcuffed and arrested him. He was charged with "willful disruption of government processes" and was released later on $5,000 bail.
According to the criminal complaint, Secret Service agents who were accompanying Price and Conway alleged that Heyman was “aggressively breaching” the agents until they were “forced to remove him a couple of times from the area.”
It is not the duty of Secret Service agents to prevent accredited reporters, such as Heyman, from asking questions of the people the Service protects. When agents get between public officials and journalists, they are depriving the public of the right to inquire. The word itself -- interview -- comes from the French entrevue, meaning the view between. During an interview, a reporter provides the view between the subject and the public.
Such antics fit squarely into Trump’s public humiliation of the media. We’ve read his reactionary tweets falsely accusing the media of being the enemy of the people. We’ve seen the clips of him scorning CBS’s "Face the Nation" as “deface the nation” right in front of the host, John Dickerson.
Public News Service -- the news organization that Heyman works for — hardly has the audience strength or deep pockets of CBS News. PNS is not part of the six dominant media outlets that provide the bulk of the news information today and reap most of the advertising dollars. PNS is an independent outlet that helps bring factual, local reporting to the many news deserts across America. As a result, it is proportionally more costly for PNS to bail a reporter out of jail and provide for his defense.
Trump has cultivated and promoted an atmosphere of confrontation toward anyone who questions him. During the campaign he frequently yelled at protesters to “get out” and said he wished he could “knock them out.” He has encouraged attendees to hit protesters and said he missed the days when protesters would leave on stretchers.
Legislators are now taking their cues from the president. Since his election, over 30 bills in more than 20 states have been proposed to severely limit civil disobedience.
Minnesota is trying to make it harder for protesters to block roads and highways as a reaction to the street demonstrations launched by Black Lives Matter. This action by the legislature is in response to the group's effort to call attention to police brutality.
Oklahoma has created a law that imposes harsh fines and penalties on those seeking to disrupt “critical infrastructure,” a backlash to the months-long occupation against the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its allies in North Dakota. Energy companies are prime industries in Oklahoma.
The situation is so threatening to our democracy that two U.N. human rights experts have called on legislators to stop criminalizing the right to peaceful assembly and expression. This is language that the United Nations usually reserves for dictatorships, not for the country that purports to be the leader of the free world.
Less than four months into his term, Trump has fired three people who, in the process of performing their jobs, gathered information that reflects poorly on his administration or campaign: former acting Attorney General Sally Yates; Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; and now FBI Director James Comey.
We can’t stand by while Trump proceeds to fire anybody who dares approach his lair. We should not idle while states arrest reporters and turn harmless demonstrators into outlaws. We must now begin an epic struggle to defend those rights against a president who seems like he would gladly sacrifice them all just to hold on to power.