Trump Twitter Tirades Undermine U.S. Efforts To Democratize Countries Like Venezuela
It’s hard to say whose anti-media rants this week are more absurd: President Trump’s, over Twitter’s decision to add fact-check notices to his factless tweets. Or socialist Venezuela’s, over DirecTV’s understandable decision to pull out of the country.
But regardless of whose authoritarian whining is more egregious, Trump’s behavior could have a more troubling effect on his administration’s campaign to restore democracy in Venezuela – or in any country like Venezuela.
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To understand why, look first at Venezuela. From Caracas to Canaima, Venezuelans did a double take over the weekend when their dictatorial regime – which relies on television to help distract folks from their country's nightmare economic collapse – cried foul over DirecTV’s sudden exit from the Bolivarian republic.
The pay-TV service has “unilaterally and illegally suspended the right to freedom of expression and communication” for millions of Venezuelans, one pro-regime lawmaker wailed.
Merriam-Webster could use that as a definition of hypocritical gall – considering Venezuela’s Cuba-wannabe revolution has largely trashed free expression and communication. It’s gutted the country’s independent media. Its political prisoners include journalists. And its censorship has included DirecTV. The regime ordered DirecTV to pull CNN from its programming roster last year after CNN broadcast video of anti-government protesters being run over by military vehicles.
True, the big reason DirecTV bolted Venezuela involves the Trump Administration’s own media meddling. Under new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, U.S.-based TV providers like DirecTV may not carry certain pro-Venezuelan regime networks like Globovisión – which the regime requires they offer in Venezuela. So, caught between a rock and a hard signal, DirecTV’s U.S. owner, AT&T, chose to go dark in Venezuela.
Still, that doesn’t obscure the fact that what’s as dark as the Venezuelan regime’s media repression are its eye-popping lies. The most recent was President Nicolás Maduro’s claim that COVID-19 is a U.S.-fabricated biological weapon against Venezuela’s ally, China. But Maduro and his propaganda machine have also falsely implicated innumerable political opponents in everything from treason to sexual abuse to murder.
By helping to normalize falsehoods and slander in the U.S., Trump is helping authoritarian regimes normalize them in countries like Venezuela.
In other words, they perpetrate the sort of malicious insinuations Trump’s been tweeting about foes like MSNBC talk-show host and former U.S. Congressman Joe Scarborough. This month Trump revived baseless claims that Scarborough was somehow involved in the death of one of his congressional staffers two decades ago. In other pants-on-fire posts this week, Trump said mail-in ballots – which he considers a threat to his re-election in November – are fraudulent.
Even for Trump, these posts – meant to divert attention from America’s 100,000 COVID-19 deaths – were reckless enough that Twitter slapped the fact-check sticker on at least the ballots tweets. That prompted Trump to tweet back:
“Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”
He followed that with the accusation that “Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down.” He promised, “Big action to follow!”
Translate Trump’s tirades into Spanish and, well, they could stand in almost verbatim for the Venezuelan regime’s tirades against DirecTV and its bullying of independent media. And that’s where Trump undermines his own efforts to democratize Venezuela.
Trump’s critics often fret that his mind-numbing torrent of social media mendacity will normalize if not legitimize falsehoods and slander in U.S. culture. That effect can reach well beyond the U.S. – such as, across the Caribbean to a country like Venezuela, where falsehoods and slander underpin the Maduro regime.
The whole point of the U.S. sanction that prodded DirecTV out of Venezuela – at least I’m hoping it’s the point – is to remind Venezuelans that the media subjugation and Orwellian lies their regime practices are not the democratic norm.
To assure them that when their regime speciously howls about its free speech being “suspended” by a TV company, they won’t hear the U.S. government bark bogus complaints about its free speech being “stifled” by a social media platform. That when their president lashes out with ludicrous and libelous conspiracy theories, they won’t hear the U.S. president erupt with his own. That when their leader manhandles media freedom, they won’t see America’s leader threaten to imitate him.
That they’ll see the model of a president heading the kind of country we’re pushing Venezuela to become.
Yet Trump this week instead is demonstrating to Venezuelans the dismal model they already know. He is, in effect, helping Maduro normalize if not legitimize that model.
Meaning, even if Trump succeeds in toppling Maduro, and DirecTV returns to Venezuela, the U.S. will look less like transformative programming – and more like a rerun.