Autocracy Alert?

I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the accomplishments touted by Gary Bauer’s “American Values” newsletter that I wrote about on Monday:  84. Supported English as official language by dropping Spanish version of the White House website.  http://profgrose.com/opposition-research/.

Why has this particular “accomplishment” stuck in my craw? A few reasons.

First, it is not clear what this “accomplishment” actually is.  In the days following the inauguration, the L.A. Times and Washington Post and a couple of other outlets did run items describing the removal of the Spanish version of whitehouse.gov, as did Fox News; but the gist of the stories was that this was part of a general overhaul of the web page, and not meant to signal any particular policy shift.  Indeed, the L.A. Times subsequently reported, on January 31st, that a White House aide had promised that the Spanish version of the web site would soon be up and running, http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-trailguide-updates-white-house-promises-website-will-1485272911-htmlstory.html; and the conservative Daily Caller ran a piece describing the removal of the Spanish content from the website a “non-story.” http://dailycaller.com/2017/01/24/the-white-houses-missing-spanish-website-is-a-non-story/.

So, nothing to see here folks? There is no Spanish language version of whitehouse.gov, but that’s only a logistical thing — give us a minute, we just need to “build up” the website.  We saw a similar reaction to the uproar over other more high profile removal of information — e.g. all mention of LGBTQ policies; all climate change information (which is also touted as an “accomplishment,” by the way); information about civil rights and health care regulations.  Administration spokespeople provided some combination of “He’s the new president, he can shape the website to reflect his priorities” and “give us a break, we’re new here.” http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/white-house-removes-lgbt-climate-change-spanish-webpages-article-1.2954157.

Well we are now 100 days in and there is indeed no Spanish version of whitehouse.gov.  And Trump’s supporters are claiming that fact as an “accomplishment” of his first 100 days.  Huh.  I am reminded of that fun game the editors of Foreign Affairs suggested we play:  stupid or nefarious?  Is this just an example of one of the many many many logistical and administrative tasks that this Administration just can’t seem to handle? Did it really just fall through the cracks and now the Trump folks are trying to turn it into lemonade by claiming it as a victory for the English only lobby?  In which case, stupid.  Nothing venal or dangerous, just stupid.

That’s where I left things on Monday, after I posted the blog.  But the second reason this particular “accomplishment” worries me is that even if the original removal and failure to replace was a stupid oversight, the fact that Gary Bauer and his ilk are touting it as an accomplishment actually suggests that it is more than stupid — that it is, indeed, nefarious.

There is no question that the removal of the Spanish version of whitehouse.gov further marginalizes and isolates people of color and immigrants by literally denying them access to information about the Executive Branch.  So that’s one point for nefarious.

There is also no question that this Administration’s lack of transparency is becoming one of its hallmarks:  no release of tax returns, no release of materials related to the hiring and firing of Michael Flynn, no printouts of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, etc.  Removing the Spanish version of the White House website with no explanation and no replacement furthers the Administration’s apparent goal to reduce transparency even more.  So that’s two points for nefarious.

But there is something else — something more amorphous.  As I looked through the list of 100 “accomplishments” this one just jumped out as odd.  It’s odd because it’s really nothing? It’s odd because it may be something? It’s odd because I don’t know what it is.  And that’s why I’m writing about it.  I am going to start playing a new game I’m calling, “Autocracy Alert?” Here’s how it works:  when you notice something odd, ask yourself these questions: who benefits by this action; who is hurt by this action; what is the purported reason for the action; does the reason make sense?

Lots is being written about the assault on our fragile democracy, and we need to try to get our arms around all fronts of that assault.  Trump and his inner circle operate largely in the shadows, largely without oversight, and largely, therefore, with no accountability.  When they do something that doesn’t make sense, whose explanation doesn’t fit, that benefits them and hurts a large swath of the American people, that something may very well be part of the assault on our fragile democracy.  Play “Autocracy Alert?” with me, friends, as we try to keep this thing from slipping out of our grasp.