It was disturbing—as well as embarrassing—to see Tampa nationally highlighted, as it were, as a media demonizing, Qanon-friendly venue for that vintage Donald Trump rally. No, it wasn’t a casting call for a “Deliverance” sequel. It wasn’t that nuanced. And it makes a back-in-the-day George Wallace rally seem relatively civil with its states’-rights code words and dog whistles that were meant to arouse an anti-elite movement well shy of a media-targeting lynch mob.
All presidents have had issues with those in a position to publicly criticize them. Of course, they did. It comes with the territory of being elected, being accountable, being political, being fallible and being part of a constitutional democracy with an iconic free speech amendment. If you can’t take the political heat, get the hell out of this sometimes-combative democracy’s kitchen.
But no president, including Richard Nixon of “enemies list” infamy, has ever made violence-embracing assaults on the mainstream media a top presidential priority. With good reason. Viciously attacking a free press is more than unpresidential. It’s un-American and unpatriotic.
What this vocabulary-challenged president does is not tongue and cheek pushback. It’s not even expediently partisan rhetoric normally heard in a primary. No, this is self-serving, inflammatory, down-right scary abuse of the world’s preeminent bully pulpit.
Media scapegoating and targeting is not just a strategic White House distraction. It’s also unconscionably unfair to put CNN’s Jim Acosta in the presidential cross hairs. At some point, frankly and tragically, we could be talking about the late Jim Acosta who was seen–up close and personal–by too many Trump channelers as “the enemy of the people.” The Capital Gazette murders can’t be seen as purely coincidental in this parlous-press environment. Trump controls the echo chamber from hell.
Would that it were pure bluster when Trump bragged that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” and “wouldn’t lose voters.” He’s the Rev. Jim Jones in the Oval Office.
As if Trump’s performance in Tampa wasn’t revolting enough, Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down the next day by not publicly disassociating herself and the White House from “enemy of the people” slander. She flat-out would not–and she was asked directly to do just that by Acosta. But she did fire back with bullet points about unfair media treatment of the White House. But no backing down on “enemy of the people” rhetoric that most of us once thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history with the rest of Josef Stalin’s authoritarian rhetoric.
There are no quick fixes or easy answers here—beyond an electoral awakening in 2018 and 2020. The threat to the media constitutes an existential crisis. The right response is to continue to do our jobs. As TV journalist Christiane Amanpour told writers at the recent Television Critics Association, “By continuing to put the truth out, that’s how we fight back.”
And may the truth set us free. All of us.