I don’t think we should worry too much about Meryl Streep. Her cred can withstand some silly tweets from our president-elect, and she has chosen to live in the public eye. But this recent episode of Twitter abuse is merely the tip of the iceberg, and we need to think about its implications.
A government should not use intimidation to suppress criticism and dissent. Private citizens are entitled to criticize their leaders without fear those leaders will retaliate in a manner that jeopardizes their lives.
Of all of the checks on governmental power enshrined in democratic institutions, this is perhaps the most important.
It is easy to recognize traditional methods of suppressing civilian dissent. In Argentina in the 1970s, citizens were famously “disappeared” based on their political views. In the former Soviet Union, dissidents found themselves freezing in Siberian gulags. During the Mao era, China engaged in public shaming of those who stepped out of line, forcing them to offer “self-criticisms” that left them pariahs.
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I suspect we Americans are wise to this sort of governmental intimidation and committed enough to the tenets of democratic governance that we will not let such tactics take hold here. But are we aware that we are facing a subtler, but still significant danger in Donald Trump’s tweets?
Juxtaposing something so silly as a tweet with these extreme measures might seem reactionary. But it might be the apparent innocuousness of this medium that will allow it to cause such harm.
Imagine the president, any president, coming onto television and actually naming names, discrediting ordinary citizens simply because those citizens disagreed with him.
I hope we wouldn’t tolerate such a misuse of presidential power and authority. It might not completely wreck the life of its target, but chances are it would be extremely harmful.
Put yourself in those shoes. Millions now know you, and millions think badly of you — rightly or wrongly. A few unhinged thousands probably hate you and might be inspired to violence out of a misguided sense of patriotism.
Every time you walk out of the house, every time you enter a business meeting, every time you hand your ID to a cashier, you have to wonder whether you are subjecting yourself to scorn and distrust by people who know the most powerful person in the world has named you as an enemy.
The biggest impact of such governmental intimidation is likely not on the targeted individual. His prospects in life have been harmed, but the effects of that are trivial compared to the chilling effect on millions of people now unlikely to speak their minds.
If dissent isn’t silenced, it is certainly much quieter and voiced at your own risk. This is a dangerous situation for a democracy.
I think we would recognize the danger of a president reading a list of his enemies on television. But we have to recognize that it is just as unacceptable if it is done on Twitter.
Twitter is likely more dangerous, in fact. Trump has 20 million followers, reaching many more people than a typical presidential broadcast. Tweeting takes moments and can be done by one person. Due to its simplicity and availability, tweeting is more likely to be done without thought of consequences.
If we allow the president to call out or intimidate ordinary, defenseless individuals, we have allowed a dangerous erosion of our democratic system.
The Twitter problem will be a problem no matter the president. Trump just happens to have seen the potential of this platform in a way other politicians haven’t yet.
And, Trump has already used it to call out individuals — from union leaders to journalists to actresses — who disagree with him. Our ever-connected world provides numerous platforms for this abuse of power.
The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights weren’t thinking about Twitter when they contemplated their drafts, but I don’t think anyone should doubt what they would say about using government power to intimidate citizens.
We have to recognize presidential use of social media for what it is and curtail its abuses before disagreement becomes too dangerous. The question of how that should be done is no doubt tricky and deserves open debate. That something should be done, however, is clear.
Robert J. Howell is a professor of philosophy at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.