Richard Nixon’s enemies list was a black-tie affair. What a party! The twenty original names included such luminaries as film star Paul Newman, Congress member Ron Dellums, and journalist Daniel Schorr. Some powerful VIPs almost felt slighted not to make The List.
The Nixon people later added scores of other individuals, as well as groups, but they could conveniently amass only so many names, given how primitive the technology was compared to today.
Of course, there was also the earlier McCarthy era, with its less exclusive blacklists of scads of subversives. But at least Sen. Joseph McCarthy didn’t sit in the Oval Office. Nor could he track ordinary Americans to the extent that law-enforcement and intel agencies can today—if nothing else, by monitoring social media postings on Facebook and elsewhere.
Now flash ahead to the possible presidency of one Donald Trump and consider the need within the bounds of ethics to pull out all stops to prevent him from sullying the White House.
We already understand how vindictive and litigation-minded The Donald can be—just look at his dreams of using the presidency to make antitrust trouble for Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, to name one of many examples. But did you know that Trump has his own indirect McCarthy ties, by way of the late Roy Cohn?
Having served as one of McCarthy’s most vicious aides, Cohn went on to eventually become a thuggish lawyer for Trump, as documented in The Truth about Trump, a well-researched biography by Michael D’Antonio, a veteran journalist who helped Newsday win a Pulitzer. Cohn tutored Trump in press manipulation and smear-making. During the Nixon administration, Cohn did his best to bully a young Justice Department attorney working on an anti-discrimination suit against The Donald.
Cyber-era McCarthyism—in fact, worse
Might Trump and his allies give us a turbocharged reinvention of McCarthyism, using databases to track his enemies with far more than Stasi– and KGB-level efficiency? And could an outspoken ebook, pbook, or blog turn into a genuine threat to your health—maybe even a fatal one, if Trump emulates his hero Putin, under whom so many Russian journalist have died under suspicious circumstances? Keep in mind Trump’s own love of violence, as demonstrated by his incitement of it at his rallies.
The conventional wisdom among establishment Republicans is that the usual suspects would tame Trump rather than the other way around, one excuse that major GOP politicians have used to justify their party’s bizarre nominee for President. I’m not so certain of that. If you read the D’Antonio book, you’ll find a recurring pattern in The Donald’s life—a grotesque swollen ego and a hair-trigger temper mixed with an eagerness to inflict pain on others. “At Kew-Forest,” D’Antonio writes of his subject’s elementary school days, “Donald Trump was a bit of a terror. He once said that he gave a teacher a black eye ‘because I didn’t think he knew anything about music.’ According to Trump, he was then already the person he would always be. ‘I don’t think people change very much,’ Trump would tell me. ‘When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.'”
First Amendment risks from Democrats, but nothing like Trump
Mind you, I’m not going to apologize for the First Amendment-related sins of one of Donald Trump’s main enemies, perhaps Number Two behind “Crooked” Hillary Clinton—President Barack Obama. Before the Obama administration I could call up the White House media people, at least try to have a question answered, or even get through to the office of an aide, by way of the switchboard. Some months ago I wanted to reach out to the administration to get a sense of how it felt on the national digital library issue. The White House operator wouldn’t even connect me to Obama’s media office. It did no good to mention I’d appeared in The Washington Post and other leading publications as a freelancer or that I’d been writing for more than 20 years on the topic about which I was calling.
The White House in effect is licensing journalists or at least paving the way for such an authoritarian practice. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed better luck if I had been able to pave the way with old Harvard Crimson connections. The Obama Administration in certain respects is a textbook example of Ivy League cronyism. So, no, I’ll not carry water for the Obama on First Amendment issues and I’ll regard the rise of Trumpism as a payback for the contempt that D.C. elitists so often have shown for the rest of the country, on such issues as the dreadful Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), an assault on the the American working class, not to mention a copyright nightmare.
Still, even as someone who rooted to the max for Bernie Sanders, I’ll never confuse Obama and his admirer, Clinton, with Putin and Trump.
Clinton and her people won’t systematically police the press, social media, bookstores, and libraries for subversion—they are a long way from that; rather, they would reflect the traditional norms of American politicians and understand the backlash that would occur if they meddled in a massive way.
This is why I would feel comfortable with national digital libraries—mixed with many nongovernment options such as Amazon and other e-bookstores—under a Clinton Administration.
Donald Trump is another story, given the threat to libraries in terms of both censorship and funding cutbacks if his authoritarian ways and contempt for facts win out.
Just as billed: An existential threat and a schoolyard bully in the Biff Tannen vein
The Washington Post and others have depicted Trump as an existential threat to American democracy. I’d agree. Not getting through to Obama’s White House media office is an outrageous annoyance. Displeasing President Trump’s list-keepers could be lethal—even for small-fry troublemakers outside the elite—if his Putin-loving side and Biff Tannen tendencies prevail. Hillary Clinton may not offer a full nirvana for us free speech advocates if she follows the example of her friend Obama. But given the alternative, we really should do everything we can to make certain that she, not Trump, is elected President.
Trump image credit: Here. The picture of Biff as he looked in 1955 is from the Back to the Future trilogy.