President Donald Trump followed in the tradition of authoritarian rulers during Tuesday night’s raucous rally in Phoenix by accusing journalists of disliking their own country and actively working toward its failure.
It was an insidious line of attack that stood out even to journalists accustomed to Trump’s persistent swipes at the press over the past two years.
“This one felt different,” ABC News correspondent Cecilia Vega said Wednesday on “Good Morning America. “It really feels like a matter of time, frankly, before someone gets hurt.”
Trump’s demonization of the press was apparent throughout the 2016 campaign, as he recklessly attacked journalists at rallies and blacklisted others. He now routinely dismisses critical coverage as “fake news,” and several of the insults he used Tuesday night could’ve come straight from his Twitter feed.
The president ripped the “failing New York Times,” accused Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of using the paper as a lobbying arm for Amazon, and called CNN “pathetic” ― an insult which prompted a “CNN Sucks!” chant from the crowd that the president appeared to relish. He did praise some in the media as “honest,” like Fox News, which Trump said “has treated me fairly.”
But Trump shifted into more dangerous territory when accusing the news media of dividing and weakening the country, a way of delegitimizing perceived critics that’s reminiscent of autocratic rulers.
“Honestly, these are really, really dishonest people,” Trump said of the press. “And they are bad people. And I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that.”
Trump also said of the press that “you would think they’d want to make our country great again” and yet he “honestly believ[ed] they don’t.”
Vega, who at one point filmed the jeering crowd of Trump supporters, described the president’s remarks as “incitement, plain and simple.”
Trump’s rhetoric Tuesday night harked back to his February accusation that the “fake news media” is the “enemy of the people,” specifically outlets such as The New York Times and major TV news organizations.
The phrase “enemy of the people” has a troubling history. The Nazis maligned Jews as enemies of Germany, and China’s Chairman Mao Zedong employed the same construction to target dissenters. Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin also used the phrase to disparage political adversaries and others opposed to their dictatorial rule.
Nina Khrushcheva ― a New School professor and great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who actually rejected the term “enemy of the people” in 1956 ― told The Times in February that Trump’s words were “shocking to hear in a non-Soviet, moreover non-Stalinist setting.”
She likened Trump’s “enemy of the people” line to notorious dictators of the past in that the “formulas of insult, humiliation, domination, branding, enemy-forming and name calling are always the same.”
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former friend of Trump who has since emerged as a frequent critic, described Trump’s anti-press statements on Wednesday morning as “Stalinist.”
Trump has long shown a soft spot for strongmen. He’s heaped more praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin than on traditional European allies who operate in more open and democratic ways. He’s also praised autocrats like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government jails more journalists than any other, and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has justified killing journalists, among others.
Though Trump didn’t specifically use the phrase “enemy of the people” on Tuesday night, he repeatedly suggested that the press and the public are in opposition.
“You’re taxpaying Americans who love our nation, obey our laws, and care for our people,” Trump said. “It’s time to expose the crooked media deceptions and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions, and yes, by the way ... they are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”
That reference to “history and heritage” is particularly ominous in light of the killing of an anti-racist protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, allegedly by a white supremacist.
Trump received widespread criticism for initially blaming “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, rather than directly calling out the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended on the city. On Tuesday night, Trump accused the news media of distorting his remarks while conveniently leaving out how he faulted “many sides” early on.
Trump has also recently bemoaned the loss of “beautiful” public statues of Confederate leaders, who were secessionists fighting to preserve slavery in the United States. He’s said the statues’ removal would rip apart the country’s “history and culture.”
The president’s characterization of the press is especially alarming, given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly refused to rule out jailing journalists for doing their jobs and suggested last month that the Trump administration intended to make it easier to subpoena reporters in attempts to find out their confidential sources.
Sessions said that press freedom is “not unlimited,” and when covering national security, journalists “cannot place lives at risk with impunity” ― language that raised fears of legal repercussions for the act of reporting.
News organizations typically engage with the government prior to publishing sensitive or classified information, and editors try to balance the need to inform the public with national security concerns. And yet the president’s accusations may help foster a climate in which journalists’ actions are viewed as suspect at best, or anti-American at worst.
On Twitter, several prominent journalists expressed concern over Trump’s language and the possible violent repercussions, an understandable fear given recent physical attacks on reporters.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said that Trump’s claim that journalists don’t love their country is “a vile, cynical and disgusting lie.”
Tom Ricks, a veteran military journalist, labeled Trump’s behavior “un-American.”
And Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of Politico and more recently of Axios, described Trump’s comments about reporters as “despicable, extremely deceptive, and dangerous.”
“To say reporters erase America’s heritage, don’t love America, turn off cameras to hide truth, are to blame for racial tension is just plain wrong,” VandeHei tweeted, noting the work of Daniel Pearl, a journalist who was decapitated while reporting in Pakistan, and others who died while “exposing facts.”
“There are great Americans deeply concerned about a changing nation,” VandeHei continued. “God forbid one buys Trump’s mad rant and takes action.”