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Trump lights a match below the NY Times

Libel lawsuit the latest grab at authoritarian power as Trump undermines American institutions.

The New York Times building.
The campaign to reelect President Donald Trump sued The New York Times for defamation Wednesday, saying it was responsible for an essay by a former executive editor for the newspaper that claimed the campaign made a deal with Russian officials to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
AP file

Sue me!

Haven’t I always reported the truth about Donald Trump?

Years before he descended that escalator at Trump Tower, I was pointing in alarm at the loamy soil the GOP was preparing for him or somebody like him.

“When I look at the Republicans, I am tempted to dismiss them as the Treason Party,” I wrote in the Sun-Times on July 4, 2012. “Seriously, were a band of traitors to concoct a series of positions deliberately designed to weaken America, they would be hard pressed to beat the current GOP dogma — hobble education, starve the government by slashing taxes to the rich, kneecap attempts to jumpstart the economy by fixating on debt, invite corporations to dominate political discourse, balkanize the population by demonizing minorities and immigrants and let favored religions dictate social policy.”

Once Trump was in office, I tried to explain him in frank, unambiguous terms.

”He is a deeply un-American hate monger, in thrall to the Russians, who is working to undermine the country morally, economically, physically — yanking away health insurance from 24 million people, many of whom are so out to sea they voted for the man,” I wrote in 2017. “That every day he works to undermine the legitimacy of the media, the courts, the idea of truth itself. He’s a liar, a bully and fraud.”

But did Donald Trump’s reelection campaign sue me for libel on Wednesday? No, they did not. They sued the New York Times — these Eastern elites, even in conflict they see only each other. As if the Times needs another distinction to go with its 127 Pulitzer Prizes. The Trump campaign claims it was wronged by an opinion piece suggesting the Russians hurt Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances so Trump would roll like a puppy at Putin’s feet.

Sounds about right. And won’t the trial, like the impeachment, be a chance for the Times to lay out the clear case against Trump? Truth is a defense, or was. Hard to be confident of that as we proceed deeper into the hall of mirrors of Trumpworld.

Being sued by Trump is a badge of honor. You can’t hold Cemetery Ridge or refuse to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The proper time travel technology is not in place. But you can stand up, right now, as the GOP dances around their Golden-Orange Calf, and speak truth, even as the Republican women ululate and twirl, then buff their new god with their long hair.

A month into Trump’s fourth year in office, the really scary part has begun. The consolidation. He places an unqualified toady as head of intelligence. He attacks judges, roots out those loyal to the law instead of to him. His attorney general claims that religion needs a central place in government. And Trump attacks the media, this lawsuit being the next step beyond his constant “fake news” twittery.

As a rule, I try never to advocate the impossible. Trump will not sue the paper, beg though I might. So my boss, no doubt sitting in his office, puffing out his cheeks, sighing, dropping his head back, gazing at the ceiling, thinking, “Steinberg’s asking the president to sue us?” should know that his doing so at my prompting is as impossible as Trump acknowledging a mistake. Even though last Christmas I wrote of Trump: “Craven, cruel corrupt, criminal — and those are just the Cs.”

The top of the column, by the way, is a reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s wry 1939 poem, “Die Bücherverbrennung,” or “The Burning of Books.”

It begins with an image both medieval and, at the time in Germany, tragically current: “When the Regime/commanded the unlawful books to be burned/teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.”

One writer realizes his works aren’t among those volumes condemned to the flames. “Burn me!” he demands. “Haven’t I always reported the truth?”

Brecht writes not “burn my books,” but “verbrennt mich” — “burn me” — an echo of Heine’s famous dictum “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people.”

Worth remembering. Suing a newspaper for an opinion is the early 2020 version of burning books. Another step along the road to authoritarianism. How far down this path will we go? Looking at the dictators Trump so admires, that answer is clear: as far as we let them.