The United States could soon be led by an authoritarian populist who, like his peers in Argentina, Venezuela and Russia, treats free media as something to be crushed.
Imagine a president who challenges the most important newspaper in the country every single day, depicts it as the state’s main political rival, and even calls it "dictatorial" and "Nazi". Think of a president who in order to contest critical media accounts uses state money to promote a new,"friendly" media in various guises (television, press and internet). Consider a president who changes the law with the explicit aim of targeting media critics, and especially newspapers.
All this could in the near future become the trademark of a Donald Trump presidency. The candidate has already made newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, and cable news channels like CNN, among his main adversaries in the campaign. What adds to the prospect is that this scenario has happened before.
It resembles events in the last decade in Argentina under the populist administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) and his wife, from 2010 widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-15). The pattern also applies to other significant moments when populism switches from opposition to government: witness the cases of Juan Peron’s Argentina after 1945, and more recently Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia.
We argue in our research that racism and charismatic leadership bring Trump close to the fascist equation, but he might be better described as post-fascist, which is to say populist. Trump’s post-fascism presents another typical characteristic: a tendency to demonise the media while at the same time fully taking advantage of it. Some observers see this tendency as perplexing, but new research on populism shows that it adopts a defining stance against independent media that nonetheless uses this media to expand its message.
When in government, populism often shifts from instrumental use of the media to active, explicit attacks on media autonomy. In this context, recent populist history could be a harbinger of Trump's media policy. Again, recent or current populist examples such as Argentina, Venezuela and Vladimir Putin’s Russia demonstrate the power of a populist presidency over the independent press.
The press as target
Many populist leaders around the world try to create a sense that the country, the leader and the people face threatening enemies. In Trump’s case these begin with immigrants and minorities, Hillary Clinton, and the press (especially in its printed form). Like other fascists and populists, he sees these enemies as part of a global conspiracy. In his personal and political paranoia, he believes he is fighting against an alliance between the left, migrants and minorities, international finance, and the independent press. The media, he believes, stands for the corrupt elites that, from inside and outside the country, are oppressing the American people.
Trump’s populist scheme conceives him as the personal representation of the nation and its people. Thus he can only understand the media's critical responses to his own treatment of women as an attempt to curtail American sovereignty. In this sense too, his campaign follows the populist playbook to the letter. Based on a post-fascist view of democracy where authoritarianism and demonisation replace pluralism, tolerance and open dialogue, Trump explains his political problems in terms of the existence of a free press.
For scholars of Latin American populism, and especially Argentine, this sounds like an old familiar song. For ten years, the successive Kirchner presidents launched an offensive against critical media. They chose Clarín, one of the most important newspapers in the country, as their main target. They blamed this newspaper for all their problems in government, even distributing T-shirts and socks stating that “Clarín is lying” and constantly repeating that Clarín was "crooked". Moving from demonisation to practice, they used the Argentine IRS against the newspaper, harassing it with audits and eventually anti-monopoly laws. The latter also benefited media owned by friends of the populist leaders themselves.
The populist approach
Populists combine this hostility towards the autonomy of the press with attempts to use the press as yet another political vehicle. While criticising its nature, they seek its attention. In this sense populists are not against the media as such, but against content unfriendly to them.
In fact, they even overemphasise the importance of the media by placing it at the centre of politics. They see politics as an spectacle where a cultural battle is being fought over the defence of the interest of the 'true' people of the nation and against media, elites, and minorities that defend anti-national interests. Freedom of expression is acceptable just as long as it means the leader giving voice to 'the common man.'
When populists reach government, the dialogue between officialdom and opposition tends to be replaced by a reinvigorated focus on the press as a key instrument. It is not surprising, therefore, that Trump and some of his campaign advisers are planning to launch a new media company after the election. But they also wish to go further, for in practice the populist approach in government translates into political pressure, judicial accusations, restrictive legislations and the use of state resources in media campaigns against journalists and media corporations.
In Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, Argentina under the Kirchners, and Putin’s Russia, the state-media apparatus allies with private investors willing to support the government, and favours them with subsidies, advertising and other advantages. In Israel, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu benefits from the collaboration of an American Republican donor and millionaire who publishes a free pro-government newspaper.
This not a game of global mirrors. Donald Trump’s populism has clear American roots, but its links with other authoritarian examples of global populism are too obvious to be ignored. It is undeniable that Trump’s campaign has descended to, and even surpassed, the typical anti-democratic traits commonly associated with other world democracies where underdevelopment, inequality, authoritarianism and populism are intermeshed. American democracy has suffered in turn. In the eyes of many around the world, this makes America increasingly resemble other countries where the government makes the independent press an enemy.