At 10 months into Donald Trump’s presidency, he’s already in the running as the worst president in history: a bombastic fool with a loose grip on reality and an even looser grasp of the Constitution; a dangerous demagogue who uplifts White supremacists; a petulant man-child who uses his position of power to try and shut down opposing viewpoints.
This is scary. But I want to talk about his enablers, starting with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
At first glance, Pai seems like an average Republican D.C.-insider type. He’s a smart lawyer who rose to prominence through his fiery rhetoric during the Obama administration and will likely depart the FCC — like most of his predecessors — to a cushy job in the industry he now regulates.
Yet one thing sets him apart: his unique opportunity to stand up for First Amendment freedoms in the face of one of the most unstable leaders in modern history. As Trump exploits his office to chill his critics’ speech at a nearly unprecedented level, Pai has a chance to be on the right side of history. He has a chance to stand up for the free-speech rights of people without power — in particular the rights of people of color, who are Trump’s favorite punching bags.
The question is whether he’ll seize that chance.
Since he became FCC chairman, Pai has had numerous missed opportunities to speak out against the Trump administration’s chilling attacks on free expression.
Indeed, just this past month, Pai, a noted sports fan, could have condemned White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ remarks that ESPN commentator Jemele Hill “should be fired” for calling Trump “a White supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other White supremacists.”
Hill should be free to express this fact without government interference or retaliation. Many White men have stood up to Trump without facing targeted attempts to remove them from their jobs. That ESPN folded and punished Hill for speaking her mind illustrates the systems of White supremacy and misogyny in action.
(Side note: Shame on ESPN and its parent, the Walt Disney Company, for their cowardly suspension of Ms. Hill for speaking truth to power, and similarly on NFL teams for cowering to Trump’s childish critiques and forcing players to choose between exercising their free-speech rights and keeping their jobs. #ImWithJemele #BlackLivesMatter #TakeAKnee)
Pai has also failed to protest Trump’s various attacks on the press, which include his incessant use of the term “fake news” to delegitimize news organizations that report the truth about his failures and missteps. Pai was way too hesitant to denounce Trump’s comment that the “media is the enemy of the American people.”
He’s even sat by tight-lipped as Trump has advocated violence against reporters.
And this week Pai, who just last month worried about racists’ free-speech rights on college campuses, has remained silent as Trump has suggested that NBC’s licenses should be challenged because it aired a nuclear-weapons report that was critical of his administration.
Given that the FCC is in charge of the broadcast-license renewal process, there could not be a more on-the-nose opportunity for Chairman Pai — a seasoned media and communications attorney — to explain to Trump that this isn’t how it works, that we have this little thing called the First Amendment Americans are quite fond of, which restricts government actors from shutting down and chilling speech just because it’s critical of them.
Indeed, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel did just that in one concise tweet, stating: “Not how it works.”
It’s Pai’s job to protect the public interest in the realm of media, technology and communications. He has a duty, and a moral obligation, to stand up and publicly decry Trump’s behavior.
Trump’s legacy is sealed, but Pai’s is still unfolding.
Will he oppose Trump’s attempts to silence dissent? Will he champion everyone’s free-speech rights — especially the rights of women, people of color and other vulnerable communities? Will he join us in standing up for First Amendment freedoms?