The news media has been rightfully up in arms about the president of the United States participating in a cover-up of the murder of a journalist and Washington Post columnist. And they’ve been equally critical of President Trump’s comments last week at a rally in Montana, where he applauded a GOP congressman for body-slamming a reporter because he asked a question. Likewise, the media has understandably protested the Secret Service telling an accredited journalist that he was not allowed to ask Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner questions on an airplane.
This is, after all, a country with a Bill of Rights that protects freedom of the press. All right thinking people are supportive of their position on these issues. Between all that and the constant demeaning of the media by the president, it’s clear that this administration is using the power of the government and the president’s bully pulpit to threaten the press, and not just in a metaphorical sense. All of the above examples demonstrate a threat of physical violence.
People who understand human rights also understand the role the free press plays in securing those rights. Anyone who cares about liberty and justice can see that this crusade to protect powerful government officials from accountability by muzzling the media is a danger to us all.
Over the past few months, we’ve gone round and round about “civility” — who’s got it, who doesn’t, who’s to blame for losing it. The truth is that this country’s always been politically unruly and sometimes even violent. It’s not in the least bit unusual for citizens to confront their representatives, sometimes rudely and obnoxiously. Just in the past two decades, from Code Pink interrupting and protesting in every Iraq war hearing to the Tea Party spitting on congressmen and screaming in their faces over the health care bill, people from all sides of the political divide have been getting up in their elected leaders’ faces. Until recently, this was seen as a normal part of our raucous political life in turbulent times.
This past weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was yelled at in a Louisville restaurant while sitting with his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. A man approached their table and angrily told they should leave the country. When other patrons spoke up and told him to leave them alone he shouted, “They’re coming for Social Security!” (This happens to be true. McConnell told CNBC just last week that the only solution for the massive deficit caused by his massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy is to cut “entitlements.”)
There have been several similar incidents. Protesters and constituents have approached Sen. Ted Cruz and his wife, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in public places, giving them hell over policies and practices.
Of all the people in our public life to get angry about this, the last you’d expect would be members of the media, who are being demonized by the president and these very same politicians. But some of them are quite upset and have taken to social media to scold citizens for addressing their leaders in this way:
people need to stop doing this crap. personally harassing elected officials is wrong. not how politics should be conducted. if you want change, work/vote for change https://t.co/2plkKpfdJY
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) October 20, 2018
This isn’t politics. It’s a tantrum. It is vapid, self-regarding, puerile, and counterproductive. Grow the fuck up. https://t.co/lm8nEc1Jjj
— Terry Moran (@TerryMoran) October 20, 2018
No seriously: Vote
Your vote is so much more powerful than yelling at a politician https://t.co/uvC7NPxCLU
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) October 22, 2018
These are all fine reporters but they are on the wrong track. The same First Amendment that protects them from the authoritarian impulses of a politician like Donald Trump also protects these citizens’ free speech and right to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
Not all journalists agreed with this sentiment. Wesley Lowrey of the Washington Post came back with this sharp rebuke:
yelling at elected officials in public is protected first amendment speech and it’s pretty disgusting to see *journalists* lecturing our fellow citizens for directly petitioning government officials
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) October 20, 2018
And journalist Connie Shultz, who also happens to be married to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, weighed in with a typically wise and decent comment:
Hi, John. As I answered elsewhere: Journalist married to a senator here. Our rule for ourselves: When we are out in public we belong to the public. Is this sometimes uncomfortable? Sure. We remind each other: Look what we get to do in this life.
— Connie Schultz (@ConnieSchultz) October 21, 2018
Public officials whining about having to deal with angry citizens is unseemly and journalists should not protect them from it. As Shultz says, it’s part of the job. In fact, it’s a constitutional duty.
Of course, these Republicans might have an easier time of it if they would stop ducking their constituents and hold town halls and other events. But they’ve cut way back on that part of their job because they don’t want to face “gotcha” questions. McConnell himself had a hissy fit over rape survivors confronting senators in the Capitol during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, complaining on the floor of the Senate, “I don’t care how many members they chase, how many people they harass here in the halls, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: We will not be intimidated by these people.”
Apparently, at least some elected Republicans believe they shouldn’t have to answer to citizens at all. That’s part of what’s making people so angry. The fact is that Republicans all over the country are suppressing the votes of American citizens. We see it, it’s obvious; they aren’t really trying to hide it.
We are also living with a system in which a majority of citizens are routinely being relegated to minority status through anachronistic democratic “systems” like the Electoral College, which denied the White House to the winner of the popular vote winner the White House twice within 16 years. (There was only one clear-cut example in the previous 220). As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has pointed out, in the last three U.S. Senate elections “there were 15 million more votes cast for Democrats than for Republicans,” but the GOP still holds a Senate majority and therefore also control of the judiciary. For Democrats to win a House majority this year, they can’t just get 51 percent of the vote; most experts believe they have to win by 7 or 8 points just to overcome the effects of Republican gerrymandering.
One might feel differently about this if Republicans made even the slightest gesture to the majority, acknowledging that their power is not derived from a popular mandate. But they don’t. They ram through all legislation on a party-line vote, telling the opposition to like it or lump it.
Even setting aside the odious presidency of Donald Trump, people have legitimate grievances. And their supposed leaders are ignoring them.
On the same weekend that McConnell was accosted in Louisville, a woman in another restaurant in Lovettsville, Virginia, began screaming obscenities at another woman and her family, which included a 7-year-old daughter, for having the nerve to speak Spanish in her presence:
"She asked for passports; she said that she knew everybody in Loudoun County to get us out of here, and she started saying that we were supposed to speak English, but I'm like 'we’re not talking to you.'"
This kind of thing happens a lot. People speaking Spanish in restaurants, whether employees or customers, are routinely harangued by right-wingers. (I don’t have to mention all the white people who call the cops on black people for no reason, do I? Or the Trump supporters who run around screaming in people’s faces?)
No doubt it’s unpleasant for pampered Republican political leaders to be accosted in restaurants by their unruly constituents. But maybe it will give them a little empathy for what it’s like to be nonwhite in Donald Trump’s America these days. If nothing else, it would be nice if the political media understood that the people who are creating this toxic atmosphere in the first place are the last people to deserve our pity.