Why should anyone care what the president tweets, anyway? Especially if it isn’t really relevant to policy?
When it comes to politics, words are a form of action. When the president bullies women — and I think it’s fair to say he’s done that — it has serious political consequences. It’s not just that this kind of bullying is a form of assault, as would have been the case back when Donald Trump was merely a reality television star. It’s that a government official demeaning citizens by group — women, ethnic minorities, political minorities or any other group — is a form of robbing them of their full citizenship.
Any member of a group that’s been attacked by its own government is going to find the public sphere less hospitable than he or she would have otherwise. The president won’t be alone, either; others, inside and outside of government, will inevitably pile on. Others will just as inevitably tend, to some extent, to take their participation less seriously. Less equally. Especially for groups whose citizenship and ability to take political action has historically been tenuous — and women certainly qualify — that’s a very big deal.
A healthy democracy depends on full citizenship for all. That’s something the U.S. didn’t begin to live up to until the mid-1960s, and it has struggled with that since then as well. Trump is actively undermining the progress that’s been made.
At the same time, Trump’s continued campaign to demonize the news media, a campaign in which he’s only joining 50 years of Republicans in carrying out, also weakens democracy. Personally attacking individuals in the press may be (and should be) protected speech, even by the president, but it still weakens democracy by harming the freedom of the press.
It is certainly true that media norms place self-protection for the media high on the list of outrages that the “neutral” press allows itself to condemn, rather than just describe. So, yes, violations of civility that target the press are going to get a lot more media attention than those targeting other citizens or groups (or, for that matter, policy discussion).
While that’s in some sense unfortunate, it doesn’t mean that the media are wrong. A free press may be a pain in the neck for a lot of people, and it certainly will make mistakes and, yes, be biased one way or another at times. But without it, no democracy.
It is very good to see a fair number of Republicans, writers and some politicians fighting back, but again: In some ways, Trump’s media-bashing is the most Republican thing about him.
If the party is going to recover from this and avoid further trouble, the voices currently in dissent will need to speak up even louder when it’s politicians they basically like who are leading the exact same charge (albeit likely in a somewhat less crude fashion) in the future.
Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.