December 29, 2016

I’ve been mulling over a number of predictions for 2017 and beyond. They loosely fall into one of two categories, or sometimes both: ‘Scenarios of Unraveling and Doom’ and ‘Surprising Good Tidings.’ Clearly, Washington will be the source of many bitter disputes, ominous occurrences, and—I truly believe—moments of hope and courage. In considering which of these eventualities is the most interesting—and perhaps even the most likely—I keep returning to one: the battle over freedom of speech and the press.

I predict that, among the many potential ways in which Donald Trump will try to assert his will on the institutions and people of the United States, his disdain for the freedom of speech and the press will consistently get him into the most trouble.

Most Americans probably know no more than two or three protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Many are familiar with the second amendment either because they value gun ownership or because it is a controversial issue covered by the media. A smaller percentage are aware of the fifth amendment’s various procedural protections (including the right to due process and the protection from self-incrimination), probably as a result of television references to ‘the Fifth.’ Some will know of several other occasionally relevant Bill of Rights guarantees (but probably not the amendments from which they derive): the right to a criminal jury trial (6th), the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (8th), and the protection from unreasonable search and seizure (4th), for example. Far and away, though, the most known and cherished amendment is the first.

The first amendment enumerates several hugely important rights: freedom from a government-established religion, freedom to practice the religion you choose, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances. I suspect most Americans are aware of and care deeply about all of these freedoms, but the one that almost every American will care most deeply about when it’s threatened is the freedom of speech and the press. I also suspect that President Trump will ignore all of our first amendment freedoms in word and/or deed, but the one he will have the most consistent beef with is the freedom of speech and the press (if his tweets since November 8th are any indication).

I believe that the battle to preserve the unfettered freedom of speech and the press will fall into both the ‘Scenarios of Unraveling and Doom’ and ‘Surprising Good Tidings’ categories, but more into the latter. Here’s why:

  1. The percent of journalism that is good investigative journalism may have shrunk, but the numbers of investigative journalists—given the expansion of internet news sites—is still high. These numbers will grow significantly as journalists and financiers appalled by the unconstitutional actions a Trump administration will likely pursue devote increasing amounts of time and money to fighting back. All it takes is one or two tenacious journalists (think Daniel Ellsburg or Woodward and Bernstein) on the trail of bad deeds that make good stories, and you can bring power structures down.
  1. S. tradition is clear on the fundamental importance of this right, and all but the true supporters of faux populist (fascist) autocracy or unadulterated oligarchy will recognize this. No less an American hero than George Washington told his troops, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
  1. Infringements of the freedom of speech and the press are much more obvious and concrete than, say, denials or obfuscations of climate science or the fallacy that wealth equates with virtue. In other words, of all of the ways in which Trump threatens to undermine the American system, this will be one of the easiest ways—maybe the easiest way—for people to grasp.
  1. There are so many Americans with so many potential avenues for speech that twitter trolling or even some armed intimidation or targeted jailings can not keep everyone quiet.
  1. The Supreme Court, no matter its ideological makeup, will not back down on this right. First, they like precedent, and the precedent is clear. Second, the justices who favor original intent will agree with the justices who favor progressive interpretations on the central fact that the United States is built on a few core principles, foremost of which is the freedom of speech and the press.
  1. Several massive and influential industries, including social networking and Hollywood rely on the freedom of speech and the press. These industries may have recently or in the past contributed to the undermining of the value of free speech and objective journalism, but I believe they are now poised to fight back against any attempts to curtail it.

So, given his petulance and impulsiveness, I predict President Trump will undermine both his policies and his popularity by continuing to rail against the media and any individuals who ruffle his feathers. In fact, I suspect his failure to respect the sanctity of the first amendment protection of free speech and the press will ultimately be his undoing. It will either bring him down and shatter him into pieces like Humpty Dumpty or simply make him a laughingstock. I obviously can’t be sure how it will all go down, but I just have a feeling he’s simply too clueless about this foundational ideal that such a huge percentage of Americans hold dear. Sometime, somehow, he will push us too far on this issue because it is so very much bigger than him, his grandiose visions of power, and his fragile little ego.

That’s my New Year’s prediction. What’s yours?