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The president is throwing the language of democracy down the garbage chute

The president is throwing the language of democracy down the garbage chute
Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence convene a meeting with NATO leaders in Washington. (Andrew Harrer/EPA-EFE)

While we were barely looking, the terminology of American democracy has been quite literally disappearing down Donald Trump's equivalent of George Orwell's infamous Memory Hole.

One example hit me in a personal way. At an annual national security conference in New York City, aimed largely at law students, the organizers invited presenters from the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. agencies. The bureaucracy was punishing: The government withheld the names of possible participants until the last moment, they couldn't be recorded (which led to a decision to bar recordings at all the conference sessions), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement demanded the word "refugee" be removed from the conference program.

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ICE claimed that bit of censorship would speed the approval process so that its members could participate in the conference. The organizer reluctantly agreed. I understood his plight, having myself put together similar events on such hot topics as torture, Guantanamo detainees and targeted government killings. Sometimes a Bush or Obama administration invitee would beg off or say no to meeting with the audience after a panel. But no one ever asked me to change the language describing an event, to wipe a word or phrase out of the program! The very idea violates the independence of educational institutions, the sanctity of free speech and the democratic principle of open debate. But that, of course, was in the era before Donald Trump became president.

That edited national security conference is a minor incident in the scheme of things, but it catches the essence of this administration's take-no-prisoners approach to what can and cannot be said. One well-known term to be avoided: "climate change." The Department of Agriculture's act of erasure was typical. Shortly after Inauguration Day, agency officials made it clear they wanted mentions of "climate change" replaced with "weather extremes." They preferred exchanging the phrase "reduce greenhouse gases" with "increase nutrient use energy."

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The State Department deleted 'democratic' from its mission statement.


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Other alterations have been no less notable. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials read the tea leaves and edited their mission statement accordingly. Out went "vulnerable," "entitlement," "diversity," "transgender" "fetus" — and even "evidence-based" and "science-based."

At U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the label "nation of immigrants" was dropped from the mission statement, which now defines the agency's role not so much as serving newcomers but merely "efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values."

Along the same lines, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, led by Ben Carson, has ditched "free from discrimination," "quality homes" and "inclusive communities" in favor of "self-sufficiency" and "opportunity." In other words, the onus is put on the individual, not the government.

Trump is hardly the first president to discover the importance of language as a political tool. President Obama, for instance, all but banished the term "war on terror" for the United States' unending post-9/11 conflicts, and "radical Islamic terrorism" as a term for our enemy, though nothing much had changed in the war zone. Still, the current president may be the first whose administration hasn't hesitated to delete terms tied to the foundational principles of the country, among them "democracy," "honesty" and "transparency."

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The State Department deleted "democratic" from its mission statement as it backed away from the notion that the department and the country should promote democracy abroad. Similarly, the U.S. Agency for International Development no longer cites as its goal "ending extreme poverty and promoting the development of resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential." Now it wants to "support partners to become self-reliant and capable of leading their own development journeys."

The idea of protecting civil liberties has simply taken a nosedive. Trump's first appointee to head the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, for example, took "legal" and "transparent" out of the prison facility's mission statement. The Department of Justice has conveniently excised the portion of its website devoted to "the need for free press and public trial."

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is also disappearing basic factual information. The White House missed a May 1 deadline for reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone strikes — a yearly requirement established by Obama in 2016. A representative explained that the tally was "under review" and could be "modified" or "rescinded."

All of this represents a coordinated attack on 250 years of American history and the nation's progress toward inclusion, diversity and equal rights for minorities. It conjures instead racial and ethnic divides, ignorance (rather than science), and the creation of a state of unparalleled heartlessness and greed.

It might be worth reflecting on the words of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Hitler's Nazi Party. He had a clear-eyed vision of the importance of disguising what motivated his campaign against truth. "The secret of propaganda," he said, is to "permeate the person it aims to grasp without his even noticing that he is being permeated."

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Consider this is a warning. Instead of hurling insults at the president's incompetence and the seeming disarray of his administration, it might be worth asking ourselves whether there is a larger goal in mind: namely, a slow, patient, incremental dismantling of democracy, beginning with its most precious words.

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Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and the author of "Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State." Samuel Levy, Hadas Spivack, and Anastasia Bez contributed research for this article. A longer version appears at TomDispatch.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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