A few weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the same breath, he indicated he wanted to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides essential revenues to PBS and NPR (National Public Radio). Then, only a week ago, his administration announced that they planned to repeal net neutrality provisions that had been signed into law a few years ago, which would greatly restrict people’s ability to use vast parts of the Internet unless they paid for the privilege. In the wake of Trump’s attacks on information, access, and expression, his administration is taking on a strikingly authoritarian air.
There’s a reason that authoritarians attack art and freedom of information. It’s a method of control; restraining how people express themselves (and simultaneously preventing other citizens from seeing those expressions) keeps the power dynamic in the hands of the oppressor. Art is dangerous because it’s one of the most powerful outlets we have to show our dissent. It creates solidarity, spurs emotion, and, in many cases, leads to new understandings. In other words, people learn from art.
Authoritarians from every regime in the past hundred years have attacked art. Hitler ostracized art that didn’t reflect Aryan values, using Nazi curators to degrade and silence Jewish, black, or gay artists that the regime didn’t approve of. Stalin, in the same time period, required that all art in Russia met certain criteria to ensure that it didn’t possess anything that could be considered antagonist to his government. Various South American and Central American dictators have tortured, killed, or imprisoned artists; the Chilean military government in the 1970s murdered muralists and, even recently, a Cuban artist was jailed for criticizing the Castro regime.
Trump’s moves, as a result, have been frightening. The National Endowment for the Arts makes up 0.004% of the government’s spending; it’s nearly invisible in the grand scheme of our budget. This isn’t about cutting costs. It’s about control.
There’s a method to Trump’s madness. He’s strategically attacking mediums for freedom of expression and stripping credibility from different information sources. There’s a purpose behind the fact that he’s taken to calling major media stations purveyors of “fake news”; it’s his attempt to delegitimize them. By repeating the notion that news outlets hostile to his actions can’t be trusted, he wants to drive into the public consciousness that the information we receive isn’t accurate or even real. Authoritarian governments strive to control the information sources their populations use for the same reason they deride the arts: it can lead to political dissent. Trump’s war on the media isn’t just about insulating himself from criticism. It’s about influencing what the public views as legitimate sources of information.
It’s obvious that Trump’s no full-blown authoritarian. He’s not jailing artists or nationalizing the telecommunications industry. But his attempts to control and degrade our access to the arts or shut down media stations like NPR and PBS are precursors to what, historically, tend to be darker times. Art is important to the human spirit; and, as such, it’s important to the American spirit. Trump cannot be allowed to defund the arts endowments, and he certainly can’t be allowed to degrade or destroy our access to vital sources of information. Art – the freedom to create, express, and dissent – and access to free and credible information are both vital to our democracy.