[Vision2020] 1-17-18 ‘Our democracy will not last’: US Senator Jeff Flake’s speech comparing Trump to Stalin, annotated

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Fri Jan 26 17:10:08 PST 2018

‘Our democracy will not last’: Jeff Flake’s speech comparing Trump to
Stalin, annotated


Amber Phillips

*For the second time in a span of several months, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
took to the Senate floor to  call out President Trump. This time, Flake
excoriated the president for launching a war on the media, comparing the
president to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and warning his colleagues that
nothing less than American democracy is at stake. It was all pegged to
Trump's “**Fake News Awards,”*
the president said he was going to hand out Wednesday. Here's Flake's
entire speech, annotated. Click on highlighted text to read the
annotations. *

*FLAKE:* Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us
free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold
these truths to be self-evident.” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom
has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard,
understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed
and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.

As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of
New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not
to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator
Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any
time in our history.

It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its
relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to
truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.

2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based
truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our
country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was
a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the
American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good
old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily
assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that
same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted.
“The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States
called the free press in 2017.

Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our
own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his
enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy
of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the
Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for
the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the
supreme leader.

This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body,
especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful,
repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely
backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the
despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When
a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake
news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the

I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to
serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are
dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones
and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based
media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on
the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their
commitment and their sacrifice.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists
were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect
Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the
world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21
reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.

Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the
sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time
in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in
fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright
and a requirement of our citizenship -- and so, we know well that no matter
how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.

No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And
anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own
purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That
is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have

Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is
that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong.

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No
longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our
institutions. And Mr. President, 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.

Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce
his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars
belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But
here we are.

And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against
power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And
in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my
colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back
these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence
for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.

Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution,
without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of
the truth -- and not partners in its destruction.

It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the
past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such
as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.

But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of
the president’s political career - the oft-repeated conspiracy about the
birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious
fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as
destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence
in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community
and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the
supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia

To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has
many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the
Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave
threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in
the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter,
wherever the investigation leads.

Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the
United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our
intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently
been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting
regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these
attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so
casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington
- is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.

Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination
of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in
our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them.
The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be

Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values
around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the
free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely
air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free.
Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so,
respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important

But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm.
Reading from the story:
“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty
International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his
military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are
living in a fake news era.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being
“demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our
President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”

In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian
propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions,
lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call 'fake news'
today, isn't it?”

There are more:

A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as
Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.

Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have
promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only
has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to
refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and
authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.

We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in
an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to
challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.

In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the
range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for
profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable
habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a
recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts
from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we
felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats
to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our
democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to
uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their
government. And it is our job to take it.

What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy,
in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was
eloquent in answer to that question: “We are not afraid to entrust the
American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies,
and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge
the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its

Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may
well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American
constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her
people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world -- made all the
more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily
disassembling of our democratic institutions.

We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or
ignoring – or worse, endorsing -- these attacks on the truth. For if we
compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.

I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by
borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has
special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young
missionary in England he contemplated the question: "What is truth?" His
search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up
with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:

Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o'er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst.
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal… unchanged… evermore.

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.
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