President Trump, demonstrating yet again that he’s either crazy or crazy like a fox, attacked the media a few days ago. Taking to Twitter (a modern convenience, by the way), the president wrote:
Those words have been used by tyrants to denounce individuals or groups who dared to question authority. The consequences of being labeled such are never good.
We are told by the Daily Beast that Robespierre gave the term a “good work out,” noting that he said:
To enemies of the people…the state owes “nothing but death.”
The first Soviet leader used the term “enemies of the people” shortly after the 1917 revolution. Vladimir Lenin suggested that
all leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court.
Almost always lacking proof to support the claim, Soviet leaders — most especially Joseph Stalin — sent millions of citizens into exile or to their death because they were “enemies of the people.”
Of course, the Soviets weren’t alone; their satellite states adopted similar police-state tactics. So did other tyrants elsewhere around the world.
The missing and the dead are in the millions.
‘But wait,’ you tell me. ‘It would never reach that point here.’
Did the French people think that? The Russians? The Germans? The Cambodians? The Argentinians? Remember, the list of tyrants is long.
It’s been more than 40 years since a president has had such hatred for journalists. Richard Nixon, whose distrust of almost everyone made him seem odd and frightening, loathed the media. Unfortunately, as The Atlantic noted, Nixon’s strategies for shutting out journalists have continued. Those tactics include limiting the media’s access to the president, promptly challenging media narratives that the White House dislikes and deflecting media efforts to understand how policy decisions were made. (CJR offered a detailed examination of how President Obama succeeded in stiff-arming the media. This is the same Obama who spoke so highly of the White House press corps in the final hours of his presidency.)
Perhaps the most important difference between Nixon loathing the media in the early 1970s and Trump doing so in the late 2010s is technology.
Bill Burton, who served as deputy press secretary in the Obama administration, said that while social media now allows politicians to communicate differently than in the 1970s and 1980s, when television was the best way for an administration to relay a message, hammering the media was never considered in the White House where he worked.
“Sure, the president disagreed with coverage,” said Burton, noting a certain contempt for Fox News, and then-host Glenn Beck in particular. “But this president has shown an overt, vocal discontent with a sacred institution vital to this democracy.”
Over the weekend, the administration could have backed down from what President Trump tweeted. Today’s Columbia Journalism Review newsletter reminds us that the president’s men instead reiterated his assertions.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus backed up Trump’s comments during an interview with John Dickerson on CBS, describing recent reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia and his relationship with the intelligence community as “grossly inaccurate, overstated, overblown,” and “total garbage.” Dickerson pushed back on Priebus, asking, “Is the strategy now to answer any question by just turning it back on the media and using a fight with the media as a way to try to control the storyline?”
If that’s his strategy, it has a lot in common with that of Latin American populists like Hugo Chavez, writes Joel Simon for CJR. Like Trump, Chavez sought a mobilized, committed base rather than broad support, so he deliberately sought to create a more polarized society by undermining the press. “The necessary first step of a strategy of fomenting greater political polarization is to marginalize the media, and more broadly to undermine its ability to provide a shared, unifying narrative,” writes Simon. At the rally Trump held in Florida on Saturday, The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson and David Weigel bore witness to the ever widening divide between Trump supporters and those who oppose him.
Trump cannot exile the journalists he doesn’t like; America is not a police state. But he can use the power of “The Bully Pulpit” to enrage his supporters — and there are millions of them — and convince them that journalists are attempting to destroy his presidency. By extension, the people could subscribe to the idea that their dreams of America being great again would not come true. At least one U.S. academic thinks the conditions are favorable for Trump to continue neutering and ostracizing the media.
If he were to succeed, no journalist would be jailed (or worse); rather, his or her credibility would be doomed. And America would stop being be the nation it currently is.