The First Amendment: Trump’s most powerful weapon

It’s evident President Donald Trump is up to something big, just look at his twitter account, or turn on television to any news station. His image and dialogue are everywhere. He has aggressively typed sentiments less than 140 characters on the credibility of the media and how it has been “too aggressive” or “FAKE NEWS,” but what is his motive for proliferating these sentiments? It is first perceived through the lens of President Trump that media outlets consisting of The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN are manipulating the beliefs of the American public, and are a weapon against Trumps administration through the power of the first amendment. Simply, these outlets have been critical on his aggressive stances which in turn has seemed to infuriate the President, but it appears that there is a strategy to this madness, almost as if this madness is being orchestrated by Trump himself. Although this theatrical attack on the media may appear to be uncharted waters in political history, this isn’t the first presidential confrontation with the media resulting in a drastic change for the United States. A little over 200 years ago, a similar instance was experienced through the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.

During the presidential election of 1796, electoral tensions were high amidst the United States through the influence and propaganda from the French in retaliation regarding British involvement with Jay Treaty. As a result, the Federalist dominated congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams, allowing President Adams to imprison and deport citizens who appeared to be dangerous against the government, but more notably it criminalized false statements made by citizens that criticized the government.

Opposed to these acts were the champions of civil liberties, Thomas Jefferson being one of them. He saw it in direct violation of one of his notable accomplishments during the foundation of the Union, the first amendment. Jefferson believed that “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right.”[1] Being said, once Jefferson obtained presidency in 1801, he repealed the Alien and Sedition Acts as an advocate for civil liberties believing in the freedom of speech and the press and their importance for the recently formed United States.

Although President Jefferson believed in the right to free speech, his sentiments regarding the role of free speech especially regarding the press and newspapers experienced a different tone during his presidency. He saw newspapers as a vehicle spitting misinformation to the public, bringing forth a hypocritical stance in an opinion post from The Washington Post, Memo to Donald Trump: Thomas Jefferson invented hating the media.[2] Contrary to the sentiments of this post, Jefferson was much more complicated to be considered a hypocrite.

Rather than viewing Jefferson as a hypocrite, historian George C. Herring labels Jefferson as a “practical idealist (often more practical than idealistic), and in this too he set an enduring tone for his nation’s foreign policy.”[3] Being a practical idealist involves a sense of pragmatism, being able to be flexible with ideals and intentions to achieve bigger picture goals. Such an enduring tone included the controversial purchase of the Louisiana territory, and believed that the success of the nation depended on territorial expansion through agricultural economic expansion to gain international power and prestige. The nature of this purchase was not entirely of the lofty idealistic nature, which resulted in Federalist criticism and propaganda in news publications, but was to as well secure a base for future international leverage in the balance of power system, which Jefferson firmly believed in. His sentiments then regarding the role of the press were not out of personal disgust, but for the well-being of the nation. Although his views regarding free speech were unclear at times, “What is clear is his willingness to put aside his scruples to achieve his goals.”[4] Jefferson was keen to see the bigger picture, in this case he was willing adapt his views to achieve diplomatic success, making him more of a complicated, and sophisticated strategist rather than a hypocrite of civil liberties. More importantly, he saw the power that the first amendment had, especially when it went against his view for American progress. When it mattered the most, Jefferson was flexible and let his ideals aside to obtain success, sounds a little similar right? After all our current republican president once assimilated with the democratic party.

All being said, what is to say about our President Donald Trump? Is it possible that Trump himself is more complicated than the public perceives him to be like Jefferson? Earlier last year in February, Donald Trump tweeted “@FoxNews is so biased it is disgusting. They do not want Trump to win. All negative!”[5] But as of recent times, President Trump has begun to embrace the sentiments of Fox News, while disregarding other notable news sources in result of accusations of Russian meddling during the 2016 election: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!”[6] This flip flopping of claims is not an indication of hypocrisy though. Like Jefferson, it is a revelation of Trumps view on the importance of the first amendment, and how it can be used as a weapon, but in differing from Jefferson, Trump behind the trigger of this weapon of free speech.

As observed through the political career of Jefferson, there’s a method to this madness. His changing of tone with the role of Fox News, and his continued rejection of other media outlets highlights that bigger stakes are at play other than providing “fake news.” The power of the press alone amplifies Trump’s vision regardless of their approval, and his twitter account adds yet another element of strategic unpredictability. Nonetheless, he has had more presidential attention to that of his predecessor Barack Obama regarding policy initiatives. Viewing himself as a master strategist, Trump has made unpredictable diplomatic policy claims with Mexican border security, immigration reform, and China policy just to name a few. But embodying an extreme is what Trump does best, and as well, his unpredictability uncovers an element of his complexity. He realizes that his claims are extreme, but he doesn’t expect his extreme demands or claims to come to fruition because eventually, he knows that he will meet in the middle obtaining what he originally wanted through concession.

Jefferson viewed the power of the press as something essential to the wellbeing of the United States, but also as a threat to his agenda. Trump realizes the power of the first amendment just like Jefferson, but he realizes that it can be used to further push agenda regardless of the views of media outlets. Whether viewers believe any stations coverage of the president at all, Trump is winning because he is constantly the center news headline. Through his provocative statements, he has created a world in which every conversation revolves around some aspect of his claims. He has found a way to win through his criticism. As a practical idealist, he has a view on what the world should be, and he’s willing to use the status of the world to get there, and that is through the flexibly of embodying the extreme which is amplified through the power of free speech. Trump’s strategy of creating a continuous battle with the media has only brought more attention to his parties platform and issues than ever before, making him the champion of utilizing civil liberties.

[1] http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1289

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/17/trumps-war-with-the-media-isnt-new-thomas-jefferson-railed-about-newspaper-lies-too/?utm_term=.532b35cb733c

[3] Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. foreign relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 97.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/699968804311470080

[6] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/831830548565852160

 


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