The question is become increasingly urgent, because it is already clear that criticizing President-elect Donald Trump is not without risk.
Consider the case of Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, who has challenged Trump's claim to have saved 1,100 jobs at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis. Jones says the numbers saved are at most 800. Trump, he said
, "lied his a__ off." More than 500 are getting fired and some who are keeping their jobs were never scheduled to lose them.
Shortly after Jones appeared on CNN on Wednesday night, the President-elect attacked
Jones on Twitter, saying he "has done a terrible job representing workers." Trump even blamed him for the loss of jobs, adding "No wonder companies flee country!"
When the man who is about to become the most powerful person in the world attacks you by name, there's good reason to worry. Trump doesn't yet command the government's mighty executive powers, but his diatribes cannot be dismissed as trivial social media banter. Within hours, Jones' phone started ringing. The callers warned
, "We're coming for you."
Jones is no shrinking violet. He said he's busy helping the hundreds of people losing their jobs. As for Trump, he says, "He needs to worry about getting his Cabinet filled, and leave me the hell alone."
It was only 24 hours earlier that Trump had targeted someone else
who dared question him ever so mildly.
In this case, the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, wasn't criticizing Trump personally, but questioning the underlying wisdom of trade policies embraced by Trump and others, which he fears could end up triggering a trade war and ultimately costing American jobs. The issue is a legitimate one, and definitely worthy of discussion. But the President-elect appears to be comfortable only with praise and adulation.
Almost immediately, Trump deployed his firepower, hitting Boeing where it hurts. He tweeted
, "Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force one for future president, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel Order!"
Boeing responded that it currently has a contract for just $170 million, and further analysis showed the larger sum includes many other costs, of which the airplane itself is a small fraction. Now Trump says the differences will be worked out, but the tactic achieved its objectives.
By threatening to cancel a government contract the moment he felt criticized, Trump again sent a message -- not just to Boeing -- that anyone who dares challenge him, or his ideas, policies or statements, might pay a price.
Making criticism of the president risky may be only part of what's ahead. Under Trump, people may no longer be allowed to make unpleasant suggestions, practice political humor, or even point out when the president is telling a blatant lie without risking the president's vindictiveness.
Shortly after the election, the cast of Hamilton issued a heartfelt plea to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience. Explaining that they felt anxious, they asked
the incoming administration to "work on behalf of all of us." Trump could have responded by offering reassurance; reminding Americans that he will be everybody's president. Instead, he tweeted that they were "rude," and should apologize.
And Trump remains obsessed with "Saturday Night Live" and Alec Baldwin's portrayal of him. He simply cannot accept that in a free country comedians mock their leaders. In fact, one of the trademarks of tyrants is their low tolerance for comics.
Just ask the cartoonists and satirists who have been forced into exile, or worse.
Journalists, notably, came under verbal attack during the campaign, and the practice has not ended since Trump won. Trump appears deeply uncomfortable with his loss of the popular vote. When CNN's Jeff Zeleny noted that there is absolutely no evidence to back Trump's assertion that he really won in a landslide, except that "millions of people voted illegally," the President-elect went after him
to defend his lie.
Zeleny did not back down, replying
on Twitter, "Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way."
If Trump is trying to bring the country into line, to quiet any criticism, to intimidate anyone who would dare challenge him, the signs that the strategy is working came into full view during the cringe-worthy "60 Minutes" interview
with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan, a Republican, is supposed to the serious, responsible, ethical politician who may keep Trump from going too far off the rails. But when he was asked about Trump's phony claims of massive fraud on Election Day, he lost all semblance of integrity. "I don't know," he said. "I'm not really focused on these things."
He does know. Trump is lying, and the speaker of the House is afraid to upset him. Ryan has been successfully intimidated by the incoming president.
Then there's the flip side of Trump's intolerance for dissent. His hunger for praise is even more powerful than his intolerance of criticism. Trump's vulnerability to adulation could become America's greatest weakness.
He already fell for Putin's supposed praise
, and more lavish encomiums are sure to come from wily world leaders seeking to manipulate the president, and hence the policies of the United States.
Trump should learn that a truly strong leader is open to criticism and even mockery. If he doesn't, Americans will need new courage to do things they used to take for granted. To remain the "land of the free," will indeed require that Americans also live up to being the "home of the brave" when Trump takes power.