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Freedom of expression: Despite Trump, it is alive and kicking in the US

Among democracies run by populists, the United States is unique in its rule of law, popular defiance and the power of its institutions. Even the paranoia of the Trump era brings no threat of censorship, an enduring fear in India.

analysis Updated: May 16, 2017 00:27 IST
United States,India,Donald Trump
A journalist holds a placard reading "free media" during a demonstration for the World Press Freedom Day in Istanbul, May 3. In Turkey, the constitution has been changed by a wafer thin margin and Recep Erdogan is set to be remake his country in his image, while the jails fill with purged bureaucrats, soldiers, journalists and cartoonists.(AFP)

In a book stall near the centre of New York’s Times Square, that neon-drenched temple of commerce, there is a box full of puffy, rubber hands, each no larger than a matchbox. “Trump’s hand, full size,” says a sign on the box, a mocking reference to a national joke about small hands and — you get the drift. Up the road, inside a darkened theatre, the dialogues and lyrics of a high-energy Broadway musical are peppered with a line that urges defiance of the president, “Stick it to the man!” On the news stands, the New York Times lists how Donald Trump has lied every day during his first 100 days. Even as the president bashes what he calls a “failing” and “dishonest” paper, he provides unhindered access—on and off record—to NYT reporter Maggie Haberman.

Respect for a free press, rule of law, unwavering faith in the constitution, alert citizens and unhindered freedom of expression make the US an outlier among democracies now run by populists who pander to majoritarian impulses and destablise institutions and democracy. Remember the thousands on the streets who raged against Trump’s assaults on migrants, lined up at airports to welcome Muslim refugees and how American lawyers provided free legal aid. Contrast this empowered, concerned citizenry with popular indifference in India when police and politicians routinely play down the actions of lynch mobs. There are no protest marches, no lawyers rushing to help.

In faltering democracies, the institutions slowly cave. In Turkey, the election commission, once an institution of respect, is purged before a critical referendum, the new judges passing a last-minute decree to accept unstamped ballots. The constitution is changed by a wafer-thin margin, and Recep Erdogan is set to be remake his country in his image, while the jails fill with purged bureaucrats, soldiers, journalists and cartoonists.

At the annual White House correspondents dinner, comedian Hasan Minhaj calls Trump the “liar in chief” but notes, “Only in America, can an Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the President.” In India, where you can be arrested for a Facebook post about a chief minister, political satire is not something a cable network would risk. In the US, a new show will make fun of the president’s relationship with his mother. “I put her in one of my great apartment complexes,” says a make-believe Trump, who appears as the host of his own talk show. “I call it my mother complex, and it still exists to this day.”

Trump’s election may have echoed the resentment and frustrations of the white majority, but the majoritarian thought he claims to echo is not allowed to become policy. Judges strike down presidential decisions — which he can disobey only at his peril — that they deem to be against the country’s laws and constitution. The latest, a ruling that stops Trumps from cutting federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, areas that defy his crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Rational thought and intellectual heft are still well regarded, infused as they are into the bedrock on which the country’s institutions rest. Even the paranoia of the Trump era brings no threat of censorship, an enduring fear in India.

Audrey Truschke, a US historian who wrote a biography of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, confessed earlier this month to deleting references in the Indian edition to the Maratha warrior-king Shivaji’s low-caste background. “What am I afraid of?” she tweeted. “A lawsuit, a book ban, attacks on scholars and institutions that helped me, eg, Laine, Doniger.”

Back on Broadway, next to the guitar-strumming naked cowboy (well, he does have underwear and boots), a man in a diaper parades the strip with a sign that says, “Trump’s my daddy.” Two grim-faced police officers move in. “See that line,” one says, pointing to the designated busking zone. “Stay within it.” And they break into a smile.

Samar Halarnkar is editor,, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 15, 2017 15:33 IST