Words Matter

Last week 350 newspapers across the nation sent a message to Donald Trump rebutting his dangerous assertion that the press is “the enemy of the people.” It’s not surprising that this paranoid and increasingly cornered president and his administration are ramping up the rhetoric on their growing volume of scandals, incompetence and corruption. Words matter — and it’s a lesson equally applicable to Montana’s Congressman Greg Gianforte and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

There is great wisdom in “the pen is mightier than the sword” — which is why Trump fears a free press reporting on his disastrous presidency while his accusations of “fake news” grow less effective daily. Yet his words still have the ability to move some to violence against the media.

Take the bomb threat called in to the Boston Globe, the paper that started the editorial revolt against Trump’s attacks on the press. Somewhere out there, someone decided the Globe should be bombed for speaking truth to power when the Globe actually deserves to be honored for fearlessly leading the nationwide media blowback against Trump’s attempts to silence the press.

Yet, while the national media was fighting back against Trump’s inflammatory words, Zinke was in California using the wildfires to cast blame on environmentalists. Yep, the very people who have been warning for decades that the continued burning of coal, oil and gas were overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses are the ones to blame when their global warming predictions come true.

Unfortunately, Zinke didn’t stop there. Instead he went on to recklessly label those who used the judiciary to force federal land management agencies to comply with the law as “environmental terrorists.” One might wonder how it’s possible that this guy doesn’t understand the three “separate and equal” branches that are the very foundation of our government. Or that the judiciary exists as part of the checks and balances on the very abuses of the executive branch so blatantly in evidence in the Trump administration.

So tell us, Secretary Zinke, what part of taking public policy disputes to a court of law is construed as “terrorism” in your mind? And if you can’t, maybe you’d best rethink your rash and totally baseless accusations before someone, believing your false words, decides to hurt someone.

And finally, there’s Montana’s lone congressman, Greg Gianforte. That he went to Congress with absolutely no experience in lawmaking was on full display last week when some conservation groups asked him to hold public hearings on his bills to destroy Montana’s existing Wilderness Study Areas.

Gianforte’s response was to tell those organizations he’d think about having public input after the bills had passed. If this sounds totally inane there’s a good reason — it is. Anyone with any experience with lawmaking knows every word counts. The simplest example is the difference between the words “may” and “shall”; the former meaning you have a choice to do something and the latter meaning it’s mandatory. There’s every reason for Gianforte’s constituents, who are all Montanans by the way, to seek input and oversight on drafting the language of the laws that affect our quality of life — and no good reason for him to deny that.

As Thomas Jefferson sagely wrote in 1787: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” That’s advice Trump, Zinke and Gianforte should heed as every day fewer citizens are finding their threatening words and divisive “governance” acceptable.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.