On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the U.S. election, millions of sleeping dragons received a very alarming wakeup call. The most powerful country in the world had elected an individual who joked about sexually assaulting women and engages in endless bullying, typically in 140 characters or less, of anyone who states a fact or opinion that could be perceived as not supporting him.
As described in The Washington Post article “Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist”:
Trump led the “birther” movement challenging President Obama’s standing as a natural-born American; used various vulgar expressions to refer to women; spoke of Mexico sending rapists and other criminals across the border; called for rounding up and deporting 11 million illegal immigrants; had high-profile spats with prominent Latino journalists and news outlets; mocked Asian accents; let stand a charge made in his presence that Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims are a “problem” in America; embraced the notion of forcing Muslims to register in a database; falsely claimed thousands of Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey; tweeted bogus statistics asserting that most killings of whites are done by blacks; approved of the roughing up of a black demonstrator at one of his events; and publicly mocked the movements of The New York Times (and former Washington Post) journalist Serge Kovaleski, who has a chronic condition limiting mobility.
It felt the world had sunk to an all-time low. My eight-year-old daughter awoke and cried. It felt as if part of our faith in humanity died. As a woman, it felt particularly personal given the direct attacks on a woman’s right to freedom of reproductive choice — which turned into reality only a few days post-inauguration.
As a Canadian, it’s hard for me to imagine that a similar result could happen here. However, as noted by an opinion piece on CBC:
Already, Trump’s political victory has spawned Canadian mimics. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch borrows his nativism and catchphrases. Kevin O’Leary cribs his reality TV shtick.
Similarly, Albertans have already repeated the “lock her up” rallying cry in reference to Rachel Notley, the democratically elected premier of Alberta, during a speech by federal Conservative leadership hopeful Chris Alexander. While Alexander distanced himself from the incident, other politicians such as Brad Trost, the member of Parliament for Saskatoon-University, tweeted that he would have been there chanting along with the crowd.
Alberta is not the only place in Canada where the “lock her up” chant has been uttered. I heard my five-year-old son chanting “lock her up” along with coverage of a rally on CNN. To him, it’s a short, catchy sentence that he thinks is some sort of funny joke. He has no understanding of the authoritarian regimes over the world where, quite literally, the unsuccessful political figure gets put in jail (and/or killed). He has no idea that those three words by a politician during an election undermine the very basic premise of a free and democratic society, including the separation of politics from law and order, including the all-important rule of law. My conversations with many non-lawyer (and often educated) adults reveal many of them also didn’t appreciate the significance.
The significance of the free press in a free and democratic society also appears to be undervalued. In the era of “fake news,” news agencies run or controlled by specific interests and obsession with celebrities — I’m certain the reality is that details of Brad and Angelina’s divorce likely get more “clicks” then real investigative journalism — the press has lost some of its status. It’s easy to take the freedom of the press for granted; particularly given that most of us have never experienced living in a society of government-controlled media. For those of us, especially lawyers, who understand how vital a free press is to democracy (despite the obvious shortcomings of the actual press), Trump’s declaration of war on the media and the description of journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on Earth” is really frightening. Go watch the movie “Spotlight” if you need some convincing on how important true investigative journalism is.
Are there problems with media bias? Absolutely. I have acted on various matters where the media reports have shared only a peripheral relationship with the actual facts of the case. The reduction of in-depth investigative journalism in favour of salacious headlines followed by 30-second sound bites doesn’t help to cement the public’s appreciation of how critical the media is in the free world. However, offering fact-based specific criticism of media is quite different than a declaration of war.
The reality is that the people who voted for Trump in droves were white folks without college degrees. I, for one, do not judge or hate these people. I have compassion for them. I have had the privilege of studying at university psychology, gender studies and law. I understand that an older, unemployed factory worker in Michigan may not have had the same opportunities I have had to learn about prejudice, privilege, the press and the rule of law. If I had no employment, and no prospect for meaningful employment, I probably would have a hard time caring about anything else and would be susceptible to any promise of restoring my power and status in society. The state of crisis in the public education system in the U.S. has been widely reported. If they want to fix the reasons people voted for Trump, I would suggest starting with education.
The sleeping dragon that has awoken in me is the responsibility, particularly as a lawyer, to support the basic institutions of democracy wherever possible. This includes respectful criticism, but always with the undercurrent of the knowledge of its importance. Let us share that knowledge as much, and as often, as we can.