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More Than Words

Jeff Flake might be all talk and no action. We should still listen to what he’s saying.

The confusing rollout of Donald Trump’s long-awaited and deeply uninteresting fake news awards has raised fresh questions about whether Trump’s persistent demonization of the media has implications for the stability of democracy itself. This week, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, who have consistently criticized Trump while voting with him, rode over the hill of constitutional democracy on white horses to defend the free press. While both liberals and conservatives took turns trashing them, the message the Arizona twins carried was worthy of consideration and respect. They weren’t just defending the press, which ain’t nothing. They were also standing up for the proposition that words still matter, which in this day and age should count for a whole lot.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, McCain decried the fake news awards as an effort “being closely watched by foreign leaders who are already using his words as cover as they silence and shutter one of the key pillars of democracy.” He cited the Committee to Protect Journalists’ recent finding that 2017 “was one of the most dangerous years to be a journalist,” and cautioning that “journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely.”

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Flake, meanwhile, stood up in the well of the Senate and lambasted the president for his attacks on the press and on democratic institutions. Likening Trump’s assaults on the media to Joseph Stalin’s, the senator thundered that “an American president who cannot take criticism, who must constantly deflect and distort and distract, who must find someone else to blame, is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”

The response to Flake in particular has been predictably cynical:

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My Slate colleague Isaac Chotiner has made the same point about rhetoric that utterly fails to correspond to action. As he observes, there are myriad ways in which Flake could use his actual vote and legislative authority to prop up ideas he purports to stand for as a conservative and an American, including, for starters, “a bill protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation, actual oversight of Trump’s business dealings and Emoluments Clause issues, a new look at the president’s power over nuclear weapons, promises from Trump to refrain from attacking ethnic and racial minorities and the media, promises from Trump to cease attacking the Justice Department’s integrity, ethics compliance among members of the executive branch, acceptance of 2016’s election results, and a promise to not try and restrict the franchise.”

It is more than fair to complain that Flake and McCain are spouting empty words about other empty words, talking one way and behaving another. In giving a speech about defending speech, Flake and McCain have gone for a ride on a Möbius strip of meaningless inaction. Whee!

But critics of Flake and McCain are at least somewhat guilty of the same hypocrisy.
The persistent defense of Trump’s reckless tweeting and swearing and racist ranting has always been that it’s all “just words.” Sure, he says one thing but means another. Sure, he tweets something then claims someone else wrote it. Sure, he says “the wall,” and then John Kelly says “not the wall,” and then he tweets “the wall” until it’s less word salad than word smoothie. The aggregate effect is that it’s all just talk and that none of it matters. This is an argument advanced by Trump’s lawyers as a formal matter and by his White House defenders as a rhetorical one.

If lawyers, journalists, and serious thinkers on the left have stood for anything in this past year, it has been for the idea that you can’t Snapchat your way through policy, blurring language and meaning until nothing matters. So, if we are apt to take Trump’s threats directed at the press and intelligence agencies and at the courts as serious and consequential and worthy of redress, it seems just slightly fatuous to dismiss his critics as offering mere words in response.

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It’s long past time we decide, with respect to speech, that it matters for everyone or that it’s all just irrelevant. The intimation that some words are more equal than others opens the door to a dangerous line of thinking, one in which Trump’s critics say we need to pay attention to his threats, Trump says it’s just talk, and we all get to decide for ourselves whether words have meaning. It’s very Yale lit in the ’80s. It’s also extremely dangerous in a constitutional democracy based on laws having fixed definitions.

What we’ve also discovered is that if you tell lawyers and lawmakers and journalists that Trump’s words have no force or meaning, it is all too easy to assert that laws and threats and newspaper stories have no meaning either. And this kind of denialism tends to ratchet only in the direction of yet more meaninglessness. See, for instance, Newt Gingrich, who attacked Flake as so untruthful that he “probably could get a job at CNN or somewhere else as a reporter,” then breezily added in the president’s defense that “nothing Trump has said is particularly stronger about the press than things that Lincoln would have said, things that FDR would have said, things that Ronald Reagan would have said.” He’s doing the exact opposite of the Flake critics, insisting that Trump’s “strong” words have no meaning and that Flake’s display a dramatic lack of patriotism.

Please don’t take me to be saying that it is sufficient for Flake and McCain and Lindsey Graham to make speeches about Trump’s awfulness while all the while voting in lockstep with Trump’s interests. Clearly political talk needs to be matched with political action, and it’s easy to write off a vaporous speech if the giver of such a speech is doing less than he could to preserve the very institutions he deems to be under threat. But let’s maybe step back from the dangerous claims that our enemy’s words have force and meaning, while our words—or the words of our putative allies—are just elevator music. If we are to rescue language and meaning and law from the frothing maw of nothingness, let’s begin by agreeing, once and for all, that they all matter, a whole lot, no matter who is speaking them.

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