Trump has seen the enemy, and they’re American
TWICE, AS A JOURNALIST, I’ve feared for my personal safety.
While arriving to interview a suspected drug dealer in Riviera Beach, Fla., a photographer and I were confronted by three pit bulls perturbed that we had violated the property’s “no trespassing” sign. Somehow, we scrambled back into the photographer’s Jeep just in time.
A year later, I was covering the pursuit of a runaway buffalo in suburban West Palm Beach. When the agitated animal charged, I jumped on a police car and got singed by its hot hood. Both times, animals did what animals blindly and instinctively do: protect their turf and fend off perceived threats.
That’s exactly what President Trump believes he’s doing with his attacks against the media.
Every politician dislikes the press. If an elected official is beloved by the media, the latter isn’t doing its job. Yet that job has gotten exponentially more difficult under the Trump administration — and not just because his spokespeople, Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, like to emphasize the “brief” in press briefings. Trump treats the media less as an occupational annoyance than an adversary to be crushed.
Much was made of his recent tweet featuring an old WWE clip of Trump clotheslining pro wrestling honcho Vince McMahon, the latter’s face replaced with a CNN logo. The network, a favorite Trump target since the campaign, released a statement calling it “a sad day when the president of the United States encourages violence against reporters.”
Yet there was a more alarming moment a day earlier. At a Washington, D.C., faith rally, Trump didn’t just castigate the media, but made his fight with the press into his supporters’ battle as well. “The fake media is trying to silence us,” he said. “But we will not let them.”
“We” and “us” versus “them.” As Trump spins it, the media aren’t just trying to get him; they’re also targeting his followers. This is an indictment meant to incite. Of course, from the beginning of his campaign Trump has always played to the bitter woe-is-me crowd that is convinced that they’ve been shoved out of their rightful place at the head of the line. Now he is creating his own army, telling supporters that any threat to this presidency threatens them as well.
In a political cesspool that has already seen a congressman shot and gravely wounded, it seems frightening and inevitable that a Trump supporter will hear the president’s relentless anti-press ranting as a call to arms, and seriously injure or even kill a journalist. And Trump, as usual, will claim his rhetoric did nothing to encourage it.
To be sure, reporters are accustomed to popularity ratings rivaling robocalls and cable company customer-service reps. Yet when a reporter for The Guardian was body-slammed by then-Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte for asking a question, many saw a frightening tipping point in American journalism. As part of his eventual apology, Gianforte, who won his election, donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists; the organization will use that money to track assaults on the press.
What’s happening here is nothing compared to what routinely occurs in other countries where journalists are intimidated, harassed and murdered. Yet we’re on a slippery slope now. Never before has there been a president whose administration branded the media as an “enemy of the American people,” and threatened a free press.
At least once a week, I get an angry email from a reader denigrating the press. As one man recently wrote: “Trump has done a super job of exposing you phonies in the media. No one respects you clowns, and it shows you are in bed with the Liberal agenda.” Every time Trump calls the media “fake,” there’s a noticeable spike in the volume and nastiness of such messages.
It’s as if, while the media waited for Trump to pivot into a more presidential mode, he was waiting for the media to switch from probing to reverential. Since neither of those things will happen, Trump’s paranoid animosity toward the press can only deepen and darken — and that applies in equal measure to his millions of supporters who have embraced his battle as their own.
All those years ago, the animals that threatened me while I did my job had no capacity to think about the consequences of their dangerous actions. Neither, it appears, does Donald Trump.