Donald Trump has been on record several times brushing off the accusation that Russian President Vladimir Putin kills journalists who are critical of him. Sure, sure, it’s bad, seems to be Trump’s attitude, but America kills people, too: “You think our country’s so innocent?”
This should, and does, alarm journalists, but the most frightening part isn’t necessarily Trump’s willingness to shrug off the state-sponsored murder of journalists. The most frightening thing here is in our general misperception of Putin and in Trump’s misperception of himself. Trump has created a world where violence is possible in new ways, where before it was not. Regardless of whether Trump can hold onto the presidency for the next few months, journalists should be concerned for their personal safety and worried about this culture of violence: violence against journalism (led by Trump) and violence against journalists (inspired by Trump). As you’ll see, the two are closely related.
First things first. My point isn’t about political violence in general and which side is worse. I freely admit that Trump supporters have endured disgusting violence. That deserves an essay of its own, but that’s not the subject of this one. This one’s about the high likelihood of physical violence against journalists in the United States of America during and even after a Trump presidency.
Here’s what’s happening:
- Trump has spent years creating a culture in which public expressions of anger, hatred and violence, though not necessarily forgivable, are permitted and even encouraged
- Now that he’s President, that culture has been legitimized, but at the same time the media threatens his legitimacy
- Unlike Putin, Trump can’t simply take over NBC or the “failing” New York Times, so he has to do the opposite and discredit the media
- He’s doing this in two ways: One, he’s splitting the people and the media; two, he’s splitting words from their meaning
- The more he attacks the media, the higher his approval ratings go.
Trump likely won’t order violence. But he’s unleashed it, and he doesn’t have any incentive to stop it. In fact, the incentive is to go even harder. Journalists critical of Trump have good reason to be concerned about their safety. Let’s take a look.
Back in the USSR
First, the US ain’t Russia by a long shot. Russia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. 34 Russian journalists have been killed since 2000, and there are probably more we don’t know about. For context, that stat runs even with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. In that same time period, a total of three journalists were killed in the United States.
But here’s the scary thing: it’s actually unclear what role Putin has had in those killings. I know it sounds naive to think otherwise and I’m not sure if I can let myself fully believe it. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that American journalists—credible, anti-Russia, anti-Putin—who have spent years and even decades reporting in Moscow say that, even though these murders are clearly politically-motivated, Russian opposition journalists actually “don’t believe Putin ordered the murders of their colleagues.” Instead, they blame Putin for creating the culture where it’s permissible for journalists to be killed for speaking out.
So yes, in one sense, the US sure ain’t Russia. But in another sense, when you think about what Russian journalists themselves are saying, it very much already is.
Let me be very clear here: I’m not arguing that Trump will order journalists to be killed. (Jailed, perhaps.) I’m arguing that Donald Trump, like Putin, is personally responsible for creating a culture in which violence against journalists will be permissible and, if his rhetoric continues to get more severe, physical violence will likely be frequent. Perhaps equally frightening, however, is his violence against journalism.
DJ Trump: Mixin’ messages on the record
I need to take a minute to prove how Trump is personally stoking a culture of violence. Here are just a few examples of how despicable his rhetoric has been.
Back in December 2015, then-candidate Trump held a campaign rally in an aircraft carrier in South Carolina in which he handed out what was at that time his most vicious attack on the media, at one point calling them “absolute scum.” But then out of nowhere came this: “Little Katy. Third-rate journalist.” He pointed her out:
Tur was representing NBC News. A week earlier, she’d reported that Trump left a rally “abruptly” when protesters showed up. Trump didn’t like that, so he called her out personally. The crowd quickly turned on Tur and she left the aircraft carrier “abruptly,” and with a Secret Service escort.
And then the death threats. Tur reported that one person wrote, “MAYBE A FEW JOURNALISTS DO NEED TO BE WHACKED. MAYBE THEN THEYD STOP BEI[N]G BIASED HACKS. KILL EM ALL STARTING W/ KATY TUR.”
And a couple months later, Tur live-tweeted from another rally: “Trump trashes press. Crowd jeers. Guy by press ‘pen’ looks at us & screams ‘you’re a bitch!’ Other gentleman gives cameras the double bird.”
A month after that one, Trump canceled a rally in Chicago because there was a risk violence would break out between protesters and some of his supporters. In an interview afterwards on CNN, Trump addressed the situation, saying, “I certainly don’t incite violence… and I don’t condone violence.”
Here’s a list of things Trump has said at his rallies to incite violence up until that interview, which, again, was about a year ago.
- “I’ll beat the crap out of you.”
- “Part of the problem … is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”
- “The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.”
- “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”
- “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
- “Knock the crap out of them.”
- “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
- “I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”
And here’s how his rallies have reacted. Check out this crazy live-tweet thread of the violent rhetoric at a Trump rally from Jared Yates Sexton. Here’s a picture of a Trump supporter showing some love for the First Amendment at a Florida rally last August. And don’t forget Trump twice slyly suggested someone should shoot Hillary Clinton—his supporters, including a campaign aide, did the same but not so slyly. If you’ve got the stomach, here’s a whole video of Trump supporters threatening violence. Hell, here’s another.
Pulling out a bit, Trump was also endorsed (loudly) by David Duke, Richard Spencer, the KKK and a host of white supremacists.
If you went to a rally for a candidate of your choice and saw dozens of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and confederate flags everywhere as a display of “patriotism” and heard people chanting to hang the competing candidate, wouldn’t you maybe think twice about what’s going on with your guy?
And sure, Trump can’t help it if some of his most vocal supporters are enraged or violent or racist or neo-Nazis who shout about killing his opponent and who coincidentally hadn’t participated in American politics until Trump came along. Not his fault, not his fault.
And sure, Trump disavowed endorsements from David Duke and the KKK: “This publication is repulsive and their views do not represent the tens of millions of Americans who are uniting behind our campaign.” And you’re right: When Leslie Stahl asked him on 60 Minutes about the spike in hate crimes immediately after his election, Trump really went out on a limb and said, “Stop it,” twice.
The message? I don’t condone violence, but I encourage it.
Trump might not ever order violence against journalists but, like Putin, he’s already created a culture permissive of violence against journalists. And what’s troubling is it’s actually helping him politically: The more he attacks the media, the higher his approval ratings go.
He has every incentive to push harder: Trump is committing violence against journalism itself.
Free the people
Donald Trump had a bad first month. The Russia stuff is looking worse all the time, he lost the first major court decision of his presidency, his national security adviser resigned, the White House seems to be totally dysfunctional, and he’s getting absolutely hammered in the press. Demagogues like Trump need an enemy, and now that Trump’s base doesn’t have Clinton around to want to kill he’s taken to propping up the press as a temporary enemy until the next election cycle kicks off.
For instance, in his first ever post-inauguration speech he said he was fighting a “running war” with the media. He routinely shouts down reporters at press conferences. He’s relentlessly trying to discredit the free press, including some of the world’s most respected media outlets, oddly even BBC.
His surrogates are in on it, too. Steve Bannon called the press the “opposition party” and said it should just “keep its mouth shut.” Kellyanne Conway said of the media, “If you are not showing the President and his main spokespeople respect, then you’re not showing the office respect, and you are inciting mob mentality if not mob violence.” Sean Spicer constantly blubbers about Trump being “unfairly attacked.” Sean Hannity called the press’s coverage of the Trump White House a “historic beatdown.”
Note the word choice. It’s all violent.
Ah, but now we’ve come to the tweet last Friday: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing New York Times, CNN, NBC News, and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People. SICK!”
It’s one thing to speak out against the media, to call them out for lies or bias. Obama did this all the time to Fox News. But once Obama noticed how toxic cable news was getting for him, he stopped watching altogether. The media is even more toxic for Trump, but he just watches more, obsesses over it, even makes policy around it.
To be fair, on the heels of San Bernardino, Obama cited his choice to avoid cable news for his failure to understand how fearful Americans were of terrorism in the United States. Interestingly, that information came in an off-the-record interview that wasn’t supposed to be published. Yes, it was leaked to the media.
But to be fair again, Obama’s remarks also came right on the heels of Trump’s populist, nationalist call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the country.” Trump’s numbers actually went higher, and the popularity of Trump’s shockingly unconstitutional policy stunned Obama. Trump, he realized, was accurately taking the pulse of part of the nation Obama never reached, and Trump was able to do it because of his rapacious consumption of cable news.
It’s one thing to criticize the media, but it’s another thing altogether to cast the free and independent press as effectual traitors, as the enemy of the people. “Lamestream” media is one thing. “Maimstream” media doesn’t sound quite as cute.
The most dangerous part about “enemy of the American people,” though, is the word “people.”
Cable news feeds Trump’s populist policies, and it coincides with his obsession with polls. This is critical to understanding Trump’s rhetoric about the press and where the violence is likely to come from: in one way, Trump doesn’t make his own policy. His supporters, whom he calls “the people,” make his policy. Trump will say whatever he thinks they want to hear. When his language turns violent, it’s almost always off-prompter. It’s just as much as look into how his base feels as it is how Trump feels.
Donald Trump’s a populist. Take the “campaign rally for America” he held this Saturday in an aircraft hangar in Melbourne, Florida. Before the rally he visited the pool of reporters at the back of Air Force One. He shook their hands and, according to a BBC reporter, “He was warm and friendly to us on the airplane, but things changed at the rally.” Of course he was warm and friendly—Trump actually loves the press. He loves the attention, and politically, of course, he needs the press to amplify his message and to inevitably incriminate themselves by engaging with the White House (which is their duty) in this insane fight he’s started.
Onstage, though, Trump blasted the press first thing: “We aren’t going to let the fake news tell us what to do, how to live, or what to believe—we are free and independent people and we will make our own choices.” They have their own agenda, he told “the people,” and their agenda is not your agenda. He lied about the press not showing his crowds. He accused the media of making up sources and of not “wanting to report the truth” and said he would “do whatever I can [to make sure] that they don’t get away with it.
All of those remarks were carefully scripted (all were on-prompter) to frame the press as the enemy not of Trump but of the people. And note that Trump wasn’t talking about himself. That should always set off alarms. Trump was saying—reading—stuff about “we” and “us.” Who’s we? Does that include me? The majority of voters? No, the vast majority of “us” doesn’t feel that way.
By saying the press didn’t want to show “the people” on TV, he was saying the press despised the people. He was saying the media was playing them for fools, outright lying to them as if they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And in fact, what the press wants isn’t what “the people” want at all. No, the media doesn’t give a shit about you. The media isn’t the American people. The slippery slope leads here: They aren’t people.
But most importantly, Trump said he won’t let them get away with it. He said he, Trump, is their solution. That he, Trump, would do “whatever he can” to stop them.
The crowd loved it, of course, and they started cheering happily for the man who articulated what they felt and feared. But it was shocking and truly terrifying to watch how quickly their happiness with their leader morphed into fury at the media. It was immediate: adoration to anger. BBC reported that, “At times the animosity towards the media felt personal.” A group of supporters crowded a unit from CNN and chanted, “Tell the truth!” and “CNN sucks!”
This is the danger of a populist: “I alone can fix it” coexists neatly with “we will make our own choices.” Individual responsibility is washed out by the group.
In other words, Trump is a surrogate for his supporters. When he says he’ll do “whatever he can” to stop the media, the President of the United States gives them his personal permission to do “whatever they can.” This is why “people” is the most dangerous part of “enemy of the people.” Trump is passing the responsibility for having to use intimidation and, soon enough, calls for violence against the media from his singular high-profile public figure to the anonymity of the singular crowd.
You know who else used the phrase “enemy of the people”? Josef Stalin. Mao Zedong. Putin, too, who labels journalists critical of him “foreign agents,” giving the government license to take severe legal action at whim. All aspiring dictators do this, position themselves as unfairly attacked, giving the masses the gift of a false sense of moral superiority under which heinous acts become normalized in the name of preserving control. John McCain, to his credit, responded by pointing out that a democracy can only exist with a “free and at many times adversarial press.” That’s how dictators get started, he said. “The first thing they do is shut down the press.”
Trump hasn’t shut down the press, and he (probably) won’t be able to. We’re thankfully very different from Russia in that we have a long history of a healthy, free and independent press. Putin, for instance, simply took over the country’s media and turned it into propaganda, corralling and starving out journalists who spoke out against him. Trump can’t do that. But he can make the news so messy that people won’t know what to believe.
After all, a long-standing free and independent press has a vulnerability of its own: Too many valid points of view, and, importantly in this age where anyone can be a journalist and everyone spends hours reading on social media, too many words. Both Putin and Trump are staging coups of authority, but where Putin staged a coup of a weakened institutional authority, Trump is staging a coup of language, of meaning itself. For instance, “FAKE NEWS!” is now a meaningless phrase. It went from meaning “total fiction” to including honest mistakes, then anonymous sources, and, finally, unfavorable reporting and polls.
And it’s working. Here’s a comparatively small but telling example. At Trump’s insane press conference last week, a Jewish reporter asked a question about the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents after Trump’s election. The reporter took great pains not to trip Trump’s well-known triggers—not accusing Trump of being anti-Semitic—but the opposite: He wanted to give the President a chance to reassure the Jewish community. Trump didn’t seem to hear or believe any of it and told the reporter to sit down.
If that were Obama or W. up there, the reporter wouldn’t have prefaced his question with a paragraph about how much the president loved the Jewish community. A reporter wouldn’t have feared that his innocuous softball question would have been forcefully misinterpreted. He wouldn’t have feared an attack.
How free and independent can the press be if the President of the United States refuses to share the objective meaning of words and facts and instead shapes them into a platform for an attack? And how free and independent can the press feel when threats pour in from people animated by Trump’s anger, people who, thanks to the President himself have no idea what you actually said? Nor do they care. They only know you said something Trump didn’t like. Such is the state of CNN today.
The President of the United States of America is divorcing words from their meaning and weaponizing them, using them however he wants. At the same time, he’s divorcing journalists—“the enemy”—from “the American people.” If Trump keeps up these campaign rallies at the same time he escalates his threatening rhetoric—and I’m sure he will—the “people” will have their day.
Countless reporters have been receiving continual death threats for not being nice to Trump. Megyn Kelly, for instance, was repeatedly stalked at home until Trump made nice with her. Same happens for anyone Trump publicly attacks, really.
And sure, the anonymity and pile-ons of Twitter and Trump rallies lower the barrier to making threats, so we can hope that most of Trump’s demo, which skews old, won’t act on these threats. But as “Little” Katy Tur said, even though most threats are empty, “It only takes one person to take it one step further, and that is what is scary.”
At a Trump rally, though, the crowd is one person.
When words lose their value, then so does everything they represent. Concepts. Institutions. Promises. People.
So now answer me this: In the equation “the media is the enemy of the American people,” who are “the American people,” and who is “the media”? Are the Black Lives Matter folks American people? Is Breitbart part of the media?
Of course they are. But in Trump’s mouth, they’re not. There’s a sleight-of-hand here. Words mean more than you think. Listen closely:
“I hate some of these people,” Trump said. “But I would never kill them. I would never kill them.”
What, Don, you think our country’s so innocent?
KILL EM ALL.