Trump and the Sedition Act

I wrote a piece for the Washington Post‘s “Made by History” blog about Donald Trump’s recent tirades against the press.

In just the past week, we’ve seen the following unfold:

  • Trump has called for the Senate to investigate the “Fake News Networks”
  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary, has insisted that there’s “no difference” between actual “fake news” and mainstream reporting that the Trump administration has deemed inaccurate.
  • Trump has tweeted twice about challenging and potentially taking away NBC’s network license (despite the fact that the FEC doesn’t license entire networks).

Combined with his previous references to opening up libel laws (despite the fact, again, that there is no federal libel law) and his continual assault on the so-called “fake news,” this looks like a dangerous assault on the First Amendment.

It also looks a lot like the final chapter of my dissertation. Something that historians don’t often discuss is that when the Federalist party passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, they used the circulation of false information (“fake news”) as a pretext. Like Trump, they made no distinction between actual made-up nonsense (though it’s funny to imagine the story “The Pope endorses Thomas Jefferson” playing out in the 1800 election) and what they believed to be falsehoods directed at them. The Alien and Sedition Acts were largely an attempt to take control of information networks.

We’re living in a different moment than 1798. Most notably, we benefit from the more expansive definitions of free speech and press freedoms that commentators such as Tunis Wortman and George Hay articulated in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Yet that doesn’t mean that the press freedom is as safe as we would like to imagine.

In fact, the Trump administration’s campaign of intimidation against the media may already be having an effect. Some members of the media may be acting more cautiously in covering the administration than they otherwise would be. They’re only human. Moreover, his attacks on the mainstream press are reducing his supporters’ trust for these institutions and increasing their credulity for alternative news sources. A Morning Consult poll of American “brands” indicates considerable partisan polarization over news outlets. Even if Trump doesn’t actually attempt to regulate or control media outlets, his rhetoric has already had powerful consequences.

If President Trump does take action beyond tweeting, we could see a reaction much like the one that took place in 1798–1800 that ousted John Adams and the Federalist party from political power. It’s worth noting that trust in the media overall has risen from 39% to 48% since Trump’s election (which is now quite a bit higher than President Trump’s approval rating). If I was advising Trump, I would tell him to keep his hands off the First Amendment.


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