At a White House media briefing on Thursday, a group of senior Trump Administration officials warned that Russian efforts to meddle in American politics are continuing in the run-up to November’s midterms. “Our focus here today is simply to tell the American people we acknowledge the threat,” Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, said. “It is real. It is continuing. And we’re doing everything we can to have a legitimate election that the American people can have trust in.”
As a report at Vox pointed out, this message “was in stark contrast to what President Donald Trump has been willing to say publicly about the issue.” This was a newsworthy development, but it wasn’t the one that dominated the news agenda for the rest of the day. That was the failed effort by Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, to get Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, to acknowledge that the media isn’t “the enemy of the people,” as Ivanka Trump had earlier in the day. With his colleagues in the press corps looking on, Acosta repeatedly pressed Sanders to agree with the President’s daughter, but the most Sanders would say was, “I’ve addressed this question, I’ve addressed my personal feelings. I’m here to speak on behalf of the President. He’s made his feelings clear.”
He certainly has, and that day he did so again—twice. In a tweet, Trump said, “They asked my daughter Ivanka whether or not the media is the enemy of the people. She correctly said no. It is the FAKE NEWS, which is a large percentage of the media, that is the enemy of the people!” Later, at a raucous campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump accused the media of misreporting his foreign trips, including his summits with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, and his meeting with the Queen of England. “They can make anything bad, because they are the fake, fake disgusting news,” he said. Pointing to the press stand at the back of the hall, he described the journalists there as “horrible, horrendous people.” The crowd responded with chants of “CNN sucks.”
Trump’s tweet and remarks at the rally made perfectly clear why Sanders refused to respond to Acosta’s prods. She does, indeed, speak for the President. And he does, indeed, regard the majority of the media as “the enemy of the people.” He first used this phrase, which dates to the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793-94, in February, 2017, and he’s never disavowed it. The only qualification he has issued is that it doesn’t apply to those who say nice things about him, such as his supporters at Fox News.
To be sure, what Trump is doing has some antecedents. Years before his Presidential campaign, conservative politicians and commentators were attacking the mainstream media and turning Republican voters against it. On Friday, the polling expert Nate Silver posted a chart showing that, in 2000, roughly forty-five per cent of Republicans expressed a “great deal/fair amount” of trust in the media, but by 2008, the figure had fallen to twenty-six per cent. In Silver’s words, Trump has “significantly accelerated the trend.” By the end of 2017, just fourteen per cent of Republicans said they trusted the media. The figure could now be even lower.
Trump has attempted to delegitimize the entire fact-based press in the eyes of his supporters. “Stick with us,” he said in a speech last week. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news . . . What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” George Orwell gets quoted too liberally these days, but, as the national security expert David Priess pointed out, these statements were Orwellian in the extreme. (“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”) And, judging by Trump’s steady approval ratings and the large crowds at his rallies, many people are willing to take him at his word.
What can be done about all this? The first thing is to recognize it for what it is: a reckless descent into the demagoguery, misinformation, and incitement that are normally associated with authoritarian regimes. In a statement on Thursday, two United Nations experts on freedom of expression warned, of Trump’s comments about the media, “These attacks run counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law.” They added, “We are especially concerned that these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.”
This warning echoed one that A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, delivered to Trump in a recent meeting at the White House. Trump may think he is playing a political game. But, in a country that is littered with extremist groups, and where there are more than three hundred million guns in private hands, it is an extremely dangerous one. In less dark times, one might have hoped that senior members of Trump’s party would deliver this message to him forcefully. But today, with so much of the G.O.P. prostrating itself before its rogue President, what chance is there of that happening?
For journalists, the best and only response is to keep reporting the news, and analyzing it thoroughly. One good example is the Washington Post’s continued efforts to document Trump’s lies, deceptions, and exaggerations. As my colleague Susan B. Glasser noted earlier today, the Post’s fact-checking team has now logged 4,229 of them, and they are getting more frequent. Another is the story of Russia’s information-warfare campaign in the United States.Two years ago, during the campaign, Trump and others dismissed it as a conspiracy theory. Today, thanks to investigative efforts by the intelligence agencies, the special counsel Robert Mueller, and journalists, even Trump’s appointees are warning about the threat. This “goes beyond the elections,” Coates said at Thursday’s briefing. “It goes to Russia’s intent to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies, and do a number of other nefarious things.”
Although Trump is conducting a war on the media, he isn’t necessarily winning it. If he were, he wouldn’t be so angry.