Moyers on Democracy

CNN Asked. Bill Answered.

CNN Asked. Bill Answered.

Some readers have asked me to amplify my remarks Sunday on Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter on CNN. As is the custom, Brian’s producer had mentioned in advance several subjects “that might come up,” but nothing was definite, so I made notes to myself on several developing events in the news. Although some were not raised, you might be interested in the notes I made the night before…just in case.

On the growing advertising boycott of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg brought it on himself by taking an utterly amoral position: Anything goes. It seems to have escaped him that no society, much less democracy, can thrive or even survive without some community standards above the vulgar. Organizers of the Facebook boycott – mainly civil rights advocates and pro-democracy citizen activists – are absolutely right when they argue that Facebook allows “racist, violent and verifiably false content” to run rampant on its platform. Zuckerberg’s response was to give them a middle finger and go off to a private dinner with Donald Trump.

The founder of Facebook has the taste of a corporate autocrat; as CNN’s Brian Fung recently reminded us Zuckerberg exercises complete voting control over the company and can’t be fired by shareholders. But there’s a higher principle at stake here than profits: If you believe that when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty, you need to admit Zuckerberg left the organizers of the boycott no other way to defend democracy against the hate and bigotry the company has allowed to be dumped in our public spaces than to call for moral justice. We’re talking here about a Godzilla corporation with a Frankenstein complex. The public conscience has been aroused against the amoral principle that Facebook’s profits are more important than protecting democratic values.

On What’s Behind Trump’s attacks on the press: He knows that by undermining the journalist’s credibility, you can say to your constituents, “Don’t believe her, believe me. Don’t trust the fake media; trust only me. We’re both on the same side – and they are our enemy.” You give them a boogeyman to hate. The writer and journalist Jeff Sharlet has made Trump rallies a regular stop on his beat covering the ground between religion and politics. Be sure you read his excellent article on those rallies in the current edition of Variety Fair. In an interview with me at, he tells of watching the Tulsa rally get off to a slow start. At first, the audience appears listless and disengaged, their interest elsewhere. Trump notes their mood and launches into a mean-spirited imitation of a CNN reporter; the crowd roars to life, like Romans in the Colosseum salivating over lions stalking their prey. Small wonder, notes Sharlet, that one of the most popular T-shirts at Trump rallies is a cartoon of Trump urinating on the CNN logo. Another popular one reads: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” It’s as if the campaign is inviting them to go stalking with the president.

On Trump’s Mission: By focusing so much on the diminished attendance at the Tulsa rally, many reporters missed the main story. It wasn’t the smaller size of the crowd that was nearly as important (after all, over seven million people watched on Fox News!) but the tenor and tone of Trump’s rhetoric and the tumult it was intended to unleash. Watching the rally from start to finish on television, what I saw and heard was the modern refrain of the raw emotions that brought Republicans to their feet in July 1964, when Senator Barry Goldwater, their presidential nominee, issued a rallying cry right out of the old Southern manifesto: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Watch it play out between now and November. Because, as columnist Eugene Robinson writes (Washington Post, 6/11/20), Trump is running as the last president of the Confederacy. He plays to white supremacists. He exalts “our precious [Confederate] monuments” in saying “we must build upon our heritage, not tear it down.” He refuses to consider changing the names of military bases named for Confederate generals (who were, remember, trying to dismember the Union). He demonizes and mocks Black people; white are God’s chosen. Free people of color will take your jobs, he warns, and the national government be damned for emancipating them. MAGA, post Reconstruction. Jim Crow lives.

 On How Journalists Can Spot Authoritarian trends (in the American presidency): First, read some history. Start with Timothy Snyder’s excellent little handbook, On Tyranny. Move on to Peter Fritzsche’s Hitler First Hundred Days. Circumstances change, dynamics repeat themselves.

Examine what’s been happening around the world – in Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, India – where strongmen elected to office move step-by-step toward autocracy by suppressing the vote, demonizing the opposition, corrupting the tax system, and surrounding themselves with boot-licking sycophants while firing civil servants who know how to make government work and to hold it accountable to the public. See Trump and the inspectors general he has fired. See William Barr and the monument to Caesar he keeps in his basement. 

And oh, yes: remember the old saying, “First they came for the journalists, and after that, we don’t know what happened.” 

Declare the president above the law. Declare him “the law and order president”. And politicize the justice department to protect his criminality and punish his opponents. 

And lie. Over and over again, until the lies sink in. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, corruption “has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.”