Can a democracy elect a dictator?


The Nation/ANN

Bangkok — The new U.S. president has been busy blowing political correctness sky high since his first day in the White House. Picture Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha slamming major Thai and international news outlets as “enemies of the people.” Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. It’s difficult to imagine that insult on the lips of even someone who came to power with a military coup. Political correctness is mandatory in today’s world, whether you are an elected or a self-installed leader. But cue Donald Trump and the rulebook has been turned to confetti. The new president has been busy blowing political correctness sky high since his first day in the White House. The world takes it for granted that the mass media are an integral part of democracy. But not The Donald. Here’s one of his latest tweets: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American People!” “Tyrant!” yelled the BBC in response to Trump’s remark. “At a different time, in another country, it was effectively a death sentence,” it said. “Being branded an ‘enemy of the people’ by the likes of Stalin or Mao brought at best suspicion and stigma, at worst hard labor or death.”

David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama, pointed out that “Every president is irritated by the news media. No other president would have described the media as ‘the enemy of the people.’” It’s equally disturbing whether Trump is right or wrong. On the one hand, if his “fake news” claim is true, the media he mentioned are a decaying pillar of democracy that will do the world no good. But if he’s firing false accusations, what does that say about the system that placed this man in the world’s most powerful seat of office? The showdown between Trump and the media is intriguing, not least because it features the two most formidable forces of democracy. He’s wielding a fresh popular mandate while the other side is armed with a longstanding public duty to counterbalance precisely people like him. Trump has triggered one controversy after another since taking over the White House, but always stayed within the limits of democratic principles. But his approach to the media has broken that boundary. In other words, you can build a wall at the border, sack diplomats, impose immigration restrictions and place your trusted allies in important jobs. Those actions might be controversial, but they are legal in a democracy. However, democratic norms dictate that those actions be examined and critiqued thoroughly, and this is where the mass media come in.