A friendly young man at the Burger King — I don’t eat Whoppers; I drive to the Burger King in rural Minnesota for the free WiFi — draws my attention. “What’s going on?” he asks, staring at the television monitor behind me and my MacBook Air. I assume he is responding to the breaking news I’d heard moments before on the drive from the cabin to the Burger King — the shooting of journalists in the office of an Annapolis newspaper. He is. He shakes his head; I shake mine. Then the words spill out. “I guess this is what happens when the press is targeted as public enemy number one.” He shakes his head again and walks away.
A few minutes later he returns to speak his support for the Second Amendment and the president. “All this gun stuff . . . we’ve always had guns in school and stuff, only now the media’s making a big deal of it. They’re blowing it up.”
We’re coming up on July 4th weekend. Celebrating the nation’s independence feels different this year. America is different. It’s the First Amendment that is at risk, not the Second.
The free press, sometimes called “The Fourth Estate” — the people’s independent watchdog of government — has saved us from our worst selves many times. It was the Fourth Estate that brought into our living rooms Edward R. Murrow’s report that stopped Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pernicious attacks on the integrity of American citizens whose political stripe wasn’t his. It was the Fourth Estate’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers that exposed the dirty secrets behind the Vietnam War, leading Lyndon Baines Johnson to become a one-term president. It was the Washington Post’s publication of Woodward and Burnstein’s investigative report on the Nixon administration’s break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel that led to the impeachment and resignation of Richard Nixon.
The Fourth Estate exists as the instrument of the people to hold accountable those we elect, and the government agencies they are responsible to oversee on the people’s behalf. The First Estate (the executive branch) and the Second Estate (the legislative branch) have often been critical of the Fourth Estate. Because the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press from state control, the Third Estate (the judicial branch) has protected it from the other two branches of government. The Supreme Court has been the court of last resort to protect free speech from Presidents and other elected officials have been wary of it.
There is a world of difference between wariness and assault. The current occupant of the Oval Office has used the nation’s Bully Pulpit to stir up good people like the guy at the Burger King to believe the minority party, once referred to as the “loyal opposition,” is out to destroy their freedom under the Second Amendment. Public perception has been altered. The public enemy no longer is communism, as it was in the McCarthy period. The target is much more in clear public view: the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS. Every member of the Fourth Estate except FOX News and — who would ever have imagined it? — The National Enquirer. Joe McCarthy is smiling.
A civil society has quickly become less civil. The Bully Pulpit we once expected to give voice to the unity that underlies our pluralism (e pluribus unum); appeal to “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln); respect the public and private institutions that make us who we are; and mourn tragic events such as today’s shooting in Annapolis, is used to create the public perception that the president’s critics are America’s enemies. This is an abrupt departure from the commonly accepted norms and expectations for civil discourse on which I remember being raised.
Increasingly, we tend to shout in anger or fall silent. Between the anger and the silence stands a chasm of despair. To some, America is becoming great again. To others, America in 2018, feels more like the aftermath of a coup d’état than a moment of celebration.
The young man at the Burger King was an adolescent when Donald Trump funded the Birther movement alleging that Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was illegitimate, a charge not based in fact, “faux” news that stirred the latent fear of poor white Americans to believe President Obama was out to take away their rights. Long before the Electoral College elected him President, Donald Trump had a bully pulpit of his own, and he bullied many into believing the lies about the need to rescue the country from the alleged black Muslim socialist who wanted to take away our guns —until the day he suddenly declared, without apology for his error, that President Obama had been born in the U.S.A, as though the Oracle of truth had spoken definitively — years after his false claim movement had accomplished its aim.
Earlier today, before news of the shooting of journalists in Annapolis, the free press informed the American public of U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire, leaving the vacancy on the Court for the President to nominate and the Republican Congress to give, or withhold, its consent and confirmation. The Founders’ intention of a nonpartisan, independent Third Estate — the necessary third leg of the stool of checks and balances that make for the American democratic republic — was idealistic, to be sure, but an independent judiciary is essential to the architecture of the U.S Constitution.
As we prepare for this Fourth of July observance, we do well to remember the architecture meant to preserve the nation by means of legislative and judicial boundaries that put constrain a bully from running away with the country. Doing my best to be hopeful, I still wonder: can a Whopper accomplish a coup d’état without bloodshed — within the architecture of the American democratic republic?
The Fourth of July 2018 celebration goes down hard. Hold the onions!
- Gordon C. Stewart at the Burger King