The state of the union is extremely precarious. Regardless of anything our fraudulent president might have to say when the delayed (through his own arrogance and stupidity) State of the Union address eventually takes place, it is beyond dispute that the United States is more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War.
To say we are “polarized,” though, is an incomplete explanation. Further, it implies a rough equivalency between the two estranged sides. There is no equivalency. On one side there is liberal democracy. On the other, a crude, atavistic nationalism that is being used by the extremely wealthy to further their own interests.
To make matters worse, the same grim scenario is now playing out in Europe. Nationalism is growing so rapidly there that 30 prominent European intellectuals recently issued a call to action to defend democracy. Many of the phrases in their brief document could be applied to the U.S. as well:
“A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism.”
“We believe it [liberal democracy] remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.”
“In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us.”
There is, though, one important distinction which may yet be America’s salvation. Europe is a collection of nation-states attempting to act within a common framework (the EU). We are a collection of states attempting to act within a national framework.
The importance of our national framework was clearly evident during Trump’s recent, longest-ever government shutdown, when planes couldn’t land at LaGuardia and millions couldn’t get paid or live their normal lives.
Every American citizen depends upon the U.S. government, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is these ligaments, these much-maligned civil servants, that currently hold us together. Trump and the Republicans would retain only enough government power to maintain their place at the top.
We must fight, as Europe must, to keep liberal democracy in place. Without it, we will have no union.
Below, the text of a speech delivered by retiring Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) earlier today. The occasion: Trump’s farcical announcement of “Fake Media Awards.” The Senator’s speech is a thoughtful, high-minded critique of Trump’s dangerous behavior requiring no further comment. Except: While I admire Flake for this speech, I feel his criticism of our sitting President could have been much harsher still. Trump is a reprehensible piece of shit* who is in the process of destroying this country. He needs to be called out as such, and stopped.
Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.
As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.
It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.
2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.
Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.
This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.
I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.
According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.
Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.
No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.
Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.
No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.
Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.
And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.
Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.
It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.
But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.
Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.
Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.
Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.
But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:
“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”
In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”
There are more:
“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.
Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”
And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.
We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.
In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.
What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.
We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.
I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “What is truth?” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:
“Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”
Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.
* Were the President anyone other than who he is, I wouldn’t use this sort of language. But if he can use “shithole” to describe the home countries of many Americans, I feel free to use “piece of shit” to describe him.
It’s an urgent question today, and I fear the answer is likely “no,” although I’d love to be persuaded otherwise. This compelling message from Amanda Johnson of the Working Families Party offers some interesting food for thought. I reproduce it here in observance of the Fourth.
July 4th is upon us. We’re all excited to spend time with friends and family grilling at BBQs and watching fireworks.
But as we celebrate our nation’s foundational myth, we owe it to ourselves to grapple with some of the darker parts of our story. The 4th of July in 1776 was a moment of revolution and democracy, but also a moment of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.
This founding tension is still with us today. We do ourselves no favors by closing our eyes to its presence in our lives. If we’re going to live in a country where everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need to have important, difficult conversations about how we build an America that will truly live up to its promise for everyone.
As we gather this July 4th, let’s try to answer the difficult question author Michelle Alexander asked in November: “Is America Possible?”
“In the words of William Faulkner, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ What many of us have been attempting to do—build a thriving multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy out of the rubble of slavery and genocide—has never been achieved in the history of the world. Some say it can never be done. Is America Possible?”1
We know these conversations can be difficult to have. Try to approach this conversation from a place of personal connection and shared values, and understand that without this important work, we cannot have real change. We know it’s tough, but it’s worth it.
We’ve made a list of conversation starters to get you going:
What is your experience of freedom? How is your experience of freedom different from other folks? What are things you can do that others can’t?
What kind of America do you want to live in? What’s keeping that America from being possible for everybody?
What can we do to make our neighborhoods and communities safe for people of color? What are you doing to stand up for racial justice? If you’re part of a resistance group, how are you working with groups led by people of color?
How do we build communities where both safety and justice are the norm? How do police interact with different communities? What are alternatives to calling the police?
Having this conversation is a national tradition. On Independence Day in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”2
The U.S. was built by slaves, immigrants, and working people of all races for a small class of wealthy, white male land owners on land stolen from native peoples. This legacy of slavery, colonization, and exploitation still lingers today—in the shootings of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles and lack of justice, in the exploitation of migrant labor, in the poverty of Appalachian coal towns and abandoned neighborhoods of post-industrial cities, in the construction of a dangerous pipeline on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
It lingers in our national myths that anyone can secure a prosperous future with enough grit and hard work —never mind the generations of public policies and corporate practices from Jim Crow to redlining to predatory lending to subprime mortgages to “too big to fail” that have put that prospect of security out of reach.
If we’re going to build an America that looks like the one we have in our hearts, we need to get to work today—and that work starts by acknowledging our past and creating a shared vision with one another.