Commentary: Trump poses a threat to democracy


“….were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
— Thomas Jefferson, 1787

I sat on my hands in silence when Donald Trump withdrew press credentials from the Washington Post, as I did when he cut off BuzzFeed, Politico and the Des Moines Register. Likewise I ignored his cutting off of Univision (largest Spanish language television network in the U.S.), the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post, among others. This morning when I learned that Trump is also considering “blacklisting” the New York Times from access to his campaign events, I knew I had to speak out.

As a student of Russian and Soviet history and society, I am very aware of how one of the Bolsheviks’ first moves in establishing power in Petrograd was to seize total control of their press, radio, and other media as they developed. The government retained this control until 1985 when Gorbachev came to power. It was Gorbachev who introduced a free, commercial press, removing government and Communist Party-ownership from the equation. The result was the short-lived period of glasnost, which we hailed as the end of the Soviet era.

That’s when I was hired by New York University and the Russian Academy of Sciences to head the Russian-American Press and Information Center in Moscow, a USAID-sponsored mission to help Russian journalists and publishers function and profit in the new era of privately owned and controlled media. I was there from “Apple-style-span”>February 1993 through July 1994. This period came to an end starting with the disputed election of Vladimir Putin and his cronies in 2000, who established “an authoritarian regime that maintains only elements of decorative democracy.”

Because neither we nor our grandparents or their grandparents have ever known an America without democracy, we have a tendency to take it for granted. We assume it somehow is part of the amber waves of grain or our purple mountains’ majesty. In fact, democracy is the most fragile quality our nation possesses. It is especially vulnerable to demagogues who place themselves and their purposes and gain above it.

Unlike the Russians, it is our good fortune to have a long history of protecting liberty and fighting for it. We know the importance of its preservation. The peoples of Russia have no such tradition. They did not know how to weather the storms associated with the new direction of their state and make democracy their own responsibility. Instead, Russians gave in to their own past and followed “a strong man,” as they have throughout their history.

It has happened to us before, in my memory. In 1954 our democracy was imperiled by one Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. At the height of his popularity in April 1954, 50 percent of the U.S. population approved of him, 29 percent disapproved. When he was brought down two months later by the Army-McCarthy hearings, 34 percent of the population approved of him and his methods and 45 percent disapproved.

Now Donald Trump poses an equal threat to our democracy with his Putin-like shutting out of hand-selected media. The press and mass media are our last and best hope for safeguarding our American democracy. Again, Jefferson and perhaps others said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” We must strengthen that vigilance in the November election unless we wish to see a further eroding of our democracy at the hands of Mr. Trump.

Elisabeth Hupp Schillinger is a Strasburg resident.