Op-ed: The state of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 10:44am

As President Donald Trump took to the House of Representatives dais, grinned in encouragement along with his Republican colleagues’ “four more years” chant and refused a handshake from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it became readily apparent that this year’s State of the Union address was going to be unlike any in recent history.

Customary to tradition, President Trump made frequent appeals to his administration’s achievements throughout his speech by honoring individuals whom he had invited to attend. However, Trump blatantly disgraced American democratic values and attacked his political opponents in deciding to honor conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his address to the nation.  

Limbaugh has made his career as a political commentator with little regard for the unbiased scrutiny of facts or issues. Instead, Limbaugh approaches political discourse with a conservative outcome in mind and will find any means necessary to justify. He dictates his justifications to his listeners and instructs them on how they should think about political issues. This framework was evident in the “birther” movement when Limbaugh greatly contributed to the spread of a conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya, and thus, was not an American citizen. This style of press is a threat to American democracy as it promotes groupthink and false truths.  

In a December 2016 discussion of President Obama’s legacy, Limbaugh states that any “legitimate criticism” of the former President was “paralyzed” by his race, giving rise to what Limbaugh calls a “thugocracy.” This example along with many others demonstrates that Limbaugh has not hesitated to incite racism, misogyny and utter disrespect in justifying his conservative point of view.

Honoring Limbaugh with the highest American civilian honor legitimizes his means of informing the American public. Limbaugh’s award is not only a humiliation of the prior award winners, such as Rosa Parks and Harper Lee, but more importantly is a reproach to fact-seeking journalists, who are vital to our country’s democratic prosperity. The objective of the independent press should not be to laud politicians without question. A well and accurately informed electorate is a basic requirement for a democratic republic.

With Limbaugh over the radio waves and Fox News television, Trump has staunch supporters in the media who will rarely, if ever, criticize him. Meanwhile, he excludes left-leaning networks like CNN from coverage. Trump also exploits social media to denigrate any Republican who steps out of line with his agenda. This uniformity is unhealthy for American democracy, which is reliant upon the free expression of ideas, debate and compromise. Former Republican party leaders, like Mitt Romney, who are brave enough to stand up against the President find themselves mostly ostracized from the party. 

President Trump’s State of the Union was, in essence, a campaign rally. His choice to present the award during his address to the nation was a deliberate attempt to vex his opponents and to rally his base. He used surprise events like awarding Limbaugh and a returning soldier from war as reality television-type reveals. It will be interesting to see who Trump decides to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the future — possibly the entire “Fox & Friends” cast? 

Conrad Pentaleri is a junior in the Ross School of Business and can be reached at jcpental@umich.edu.