An Open Letter on Our Fragile Inheritance
Our country was confronted this past week with presidential words and acts, affirmed and
amplified by others, that elevated the threat level to the First Amendment, the rule of law, and a
safe, civil society.
On September 5, Donald Trump, from the East Room of the White House, intensified his
verbal assault on the news media and truth itself. He denounced the media as “very, very
dishonest” and a “disgrace.” He raged about the decision of the “failing New York Times” to publish
an anonymous opinion column this week by one of his own staff describing ways in which certain
Trump staffers are trying to protect our country (and the world) from the dangers of Trump’s
impulsiveness. He predicted “all these phony media outlets” will be out of business and called
journalists “dishonest people.”
Trump unleashed these attacks against the backdrop of 44 uniformed sheriffs from across
the country who were present in the East Room for a photo-op. Trump enlisted them in his verbal
assault, turning to these law enforcement officers for affirmation. And affirm him they did. With
rounds of applause.
On September 6, Donald Trump, from a stage in Billings, Montana, glorified a violent
physical assault committed by a Member of Congress against a member of the news media. Greg
Gianforte is a Member of Congress from Montana. A year ago, as a candidate, Gianforte physically
beat a news reporter, body-slamming him to the ground and breaking his glasses. The reporter’s
provocation? Asking Gianforte his position on health care policy. Gianforte was criminally charged,
pleaded guilty to assault, and was sentenced. Despite being convicted of a crime of violence,
Gianforte remains a Member of Congress today.
Trump, with Gianforte by his side, praised this convicted criminal for being a fighter “in
more ways than one.” Trump enlisted his audience to embrace his violent hatred of the news
media. And embrace his hatred they did. People cheered wildly.
On September 7, Donald Trump, from aboard Air Force One, demanded the U.S. Justice
Department conduct a criminal investigation to determine who authored the anonymous opinion
column published in the New York Times. The author of the column is described as a “senior
official in the Trump administration.” Among the words the author wrote are these: “We fully
recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump
won’t.” These words, like all the words in the column, are speech. Free. And protected. By our
Trump, flying from Billings where he had just celebrated an act of physical violence against
a journalist, called for a federal criminal investigation of this constitutionally protected free
speech. Trump enlisted his propaganda partners to amplify his call for a criminal investigation of
what Trump called “treason.” And amplify him they did, giving him broadcast air time and
providing a platform to multiple writers who called for the author of the column to be imprisoned.
Trump’s assault on the news media and truth has the same purposes and relies on the
same techniques as his assault on the Justice Department, the FBI, and the rule of law: to avoid
accountability for his conduct and accumulate greater power for himself by sowing disinformation,
engendering division, and denigrating those who dare challenge him, especially those with power
to do so.
This is how a tyrant would act. It is wrong. It is dangerous.
September 12, 1777, 241 years ago today, Thomas Paine wrote the fourth article of the
American Crisis. American patriots were fighting for their freedom from tyrannical rule and just
lost to the British at the Battle of Brandywine. Paine summoned them to rise again to defend
Philadelphia, where Congress then was located, writing, “Those who expect to reap the blessings
of Freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
In September 2018, history has delivered to us anew, women and men, a patriot’s duty of
supporting Freedom. Economic ease might cause some to be complacent. Harried personal lives
might cause others to think they have no time to help. And exhaustion at it all might cause still
others to be indifferent.
Don’t be. “Danger and deliverance make their advances together,” Paine wrote, “and it is
only at the last push, that one or the other takes the lead.”
Find time to reflect on our country’s founding. Consider the ideals patriots fought—and
died for—at the Battle of Brandywine, ideals that came to define us as a people and as a country.
Freedom of speech without fear of imprisonment. The rule of law to replace the rule of a king.
Upon reflection, be as emboldened as the patriots Paine roused so many years ago.
Undergo the fatigue of supporting Freedom strengthened by the knowledge that, as Paine wrote,
“In such a cause we are sure we are right.” Reject violence, whether the violence is by words or
acts. Defend truth, and those whose job it is to seek it. Promote honesty, decency, and civility.
And for those who instead applaud assaulting a free press and the rule of law, who cheer
for physical violence against those who seek to report the truth, and who broadcast it all or stay
silent with complicit approval, in Paine’s words, “we leave to you the despairing reflection of being
the tool of a miserable tyrant.”
We have been entrusted with an inheritance, earned by the blood of patriots. The treasure
that has been passed from generation to generation is not material wealth. It is Freedom. In its
many manifestations. We must be good stewards of Freedom during this current crisis so that our
children receive our nation’s inheritance.
September 12, 2018