Opinion: Vermont should make voice heard

This week’s writer is Matt Dunne, a fellow at the Vermont Law School Center for Legal Innovation a former Google executive and Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Vermont has always played an important role in our nation, particularly when the core of democracy, freedom of speech, is under threat. We must be prepared to play that role again. In the face of John Adams’ efforts to stifle free speech and prevent criticism of the administration, Vermont’s Matthew Lyons went to prison for speaking out…and was elected to Congress from his prison cell.
Vermont Sen. Ralph Flanders bucked the Republican party at the heart of the Red Scare by denouncing Joe McCarthy’s fear mongering on the Senate floor. He is credited for shifting the momentum against the witch hunt for communists, a shift that eventually brought McCarthy down.
We face a similar moment again.
We have never seen a president like Donald Trump. He doesn’t appear to have an ideology or political philosophy. He has held a variety of positions on a variety of issues including abortion, marriage equality and even his own Muslim immigration ban proposal.
Trump appears to be comfortable saying whatever is necessary to close the deal. He’s already backtracking on Obamacare and saying he wants to be a president for all Americans. It should disturb us that he feels comfortable scapegoating minorities and using violent language to win an election …and more disturbed that it worked. We will have to see if he really delivers on that promise and we will have to be ready to push back.
But what concerns me most is that his Machiavellian pragmatism could lead to something much more dangerous. Trump’s area of expertise is communication and he mastered it during his campaign. The lessons he learned in reality television served him well. His leadership team is also filled with experts in landing a narrative that produces emotion and action.
The campaign was lead by Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon, who will now serve as the President’s senior advisor. Newt Gingrich was famously the architect of the Contract with America and has already suggested bringing back the Committee on Unamerican Activities, stating on Fox News back in June, “We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis.
We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We’re going to presently have to go take the similar steps here.” Gingrich stated this knowing full well that the Committee evolved into an enterprise targeting people with opposing political views and creating a deep chilling effect on expression.
The election also demonstrated how weak the media is today. A record number of newspapers, including traditionally Republican publications in battleground communities, endorsed Clinton. And yet, it wasn’t enough to change the mind of voters in swing states. Surveys show declining trust in the media across the country reaching an all-time low of 32 percent this fall. Trump was not afraid to fuel that sentiment saying “70 percent, 75 percent of [reporters] are absolute dishonest, absolute scum.”
Trump’s campaign gave us a look into his approach to the First Amendment by calling for the removal from rallies of protestors and suggesting that some should be “roughed up.” He remarked that “in the old days [protesters] would have been carried out on stretchers.” We saw unprecedented interference of Russian leadership and Wikileaks by engaging in political cyber dirty tricks as a foreign enterprise hacked and released the private emails of the Chair of Hillary’s campaign. The FBI Director’s October Surprise regarding Hillary’s emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop was also conveniently resolved the day before the election, when the damage had been done but it was seen as likely that Hillary would prevail.
In Trump, I see a political leader willing to do anything to be a “winner.” One who understands the power of direct communication and large-scale political rallies. He has seen how cyber attacks can expose a political competitor’s information in devastating ways and issued no condemnation of Wikileaks when they hacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair’s email. He has seen the FBI’s ability to deliver a political punch.
From a technology perspective, we have seen the government, even under a progressive regime, go so far as to tap undersea cables between data centers to access private citizens’ emails. It is clear that the capitulation of just a few large companies could give our government unprecedented access to the political views and motivations of most of the people in our country.
We also know that the freedom of communication offered by the Internet is fragile. The FCC, with commissioners appointed by the President, can make sweeping changes to net neutrality and change rules around whether a single company or individual can control all media in a particular region or market.
ICANN, the independent organization that governs the Internet. is under threat as foreign governments (like Russia) that are uncomfortable with the freedom of information flow the Internet provides, demand a role in overseeing the information highway. Some in Congress have advocated for the need to reduce the amount of user generated content, a freedom which is key to allowing for the free flow of information without censorship.
All of these could allow a Trump administration to control the news Americans see. It has already developed its own communication channels through Twitter and Facebook and could easily expand to cable channels that could broadcast “official” news and cover rallies, leaving traditional journalists out of the process.
Through existing structures, an administration could systematically stifle other communication by limiting access to Internet content and threaten to withhold broadcasting licenses to the few remaining large media corporations unless they meet new, limited content standards or provide desirable regulation changes for those who comply.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting could easily be eliminated, and the resulting funding cuts would most likely reduce the distribution of Public Radio in rural communities and poorer states that have more trouble raising money from members. We are already heading into an era where we have difficulty settling on a shared view of the truth and an administration with experience in new media could accelerate the process of establishing a new consensus “truth” that simply reflects the message that meets the administration’s needs.
In Vermont we have found ways to harness the Internet to advance national progressive causes, including Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders’ runs for President and the creation of the environmental organization 350.org. We also understand the complementary power of in-person communication. The power of town meeting, protest and collaboration. We are the state that found the intersection between the two, allowing 350.org to coordinate days of action throughout the world, the Howard Dean campaign MeetUps that drove campaigns in all 50 states and Bernie to demonstrate a real campaign can be waged with small contributions from millions of people. We have a tradition of speaking out against repression loudly, knowing that Vermonters will have our backs.
We need to be prepared to play this role again. From our perch in the Green Mountains we must watch carefully for the signs of threats to our freedom of speech and the ability to convey what is actually happening in the world. Through great organizations like the Center for Media and Democracy, Democracy for America and Our Revolution we can keep a watchful eye on this fundamental part of our Democracy.
We may even have to build new institutions protected within our borders to communicate freely and try new models for media like VTDigger and Seven Days. But we must be organized, educated to recognize efforts to stifle free speech and we must be ready to push back with a clarion voice.
As Coolidge said, “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union, and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.” It is now our generation’s turn to fulfill that expectation.

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