“These are just dishonest, terrible people, I'm telling you that!” bellowed Donald Trump while pointing at the members of the media covering his campaign rally on Thursday, Aug. 30 in Indiana. The loving crowd responded with loud, angry boos directed at the journalists, as Trump repeated, “Terrible people!”
This is nothing new from Trump. In fact, earlier on Thursday, he let loose a Twitter storm directed at various media outlets, including one tweet slamming journalists for being “totally dishonest,” adding: “the Truth doesn’t matter to them, they only have their hatred & agenda.”
But a third thing happened on Thursday that should’ve caused Trump — or at least anyone concerned that his rhetoric may incite violence — to think twice before calling the media the “enemy of the people” (again). And that was the news that the FBI had arrested a California man who had called the Boston Globe and made threats of violence while parroting Trump’s words.
The suspect, Robert Chain, was apparently outraged that the Globe led an effort uniting other newspapers to stand up for the First Amendment and push back on what feels like a constant barrage of attacks on the Fourth Estate originating from the White House. In response, Chain, according to prosecutors, called employees of the Globe more than a dozen times between Aug. 10 and 22. In one such call, Chain allegedly told a Globe staffer that he was going to shoot employees in the head until the newspaper stopped its “treasonous and seditious” attacks on the president.
It must be noted that only days before Chain’s first call to the Globe, Trump had tweeted a particularly shocking claim, saying that the media was “very dangerous” and to blame for wars: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!”
Clearly, Trump goes after journalists because it both helps him delegitimize some of his loudest critics while simultaneously serving up red meat to his right-wing base. That base has long been suspect of the media given that for decades the GOP has waged its own rhetorical war on the so-called “liberal media,” making the recent condemnation that much easier to embrace. But Trump has taken this a step further.
That’s why earlier in August, before Chain’s first threatening phone call, United Nations officials who focus on freedom of expression issued a statement ominously warning that Trump’s vitriolic attacks “increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.” Using language typically reserved for third word dictators, the authors noted that Trump’s behavior ran “counter to the country’s obligations to respect press freedom and international human rights law.”
Of course, we know that most Americans will not act on Trump’s words. But it only takes a handful of crazed supporters to do real damage. After all, this is the same president who during the 2016 presidential campaign urged his supporters to commit violence on his behalf at rallies with comments like: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?” At the time, some heeded the candidate’s words and beat up protesters, which Trump often would later defend with comments like: “The audience hit back. And that’s what we need a little bit more of.”
I’ve experienced the consequences of some of this rhetoric firsthand. Before Trump was elected president, I had never received death threats for my political articles. That changed in May 2017 when I wrote an article calling on Trump to denounce white supremacist violence and to specifically use the phrase: “White supremacist terrorism.” In response, the Trump-loving publisher at the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer fabricated tweets claiming that I had been the mastermind of a terrorist bombing in Manchester, England. (I’m Muslim, so calling me a terrorist is the go-to smear for right-wing critics.)
In response, I received death threats from the readers of this white supremacist publication. I’ve since sued The Daily Stormer and its publisher for defamation in federal court.
The media is not monolith, but neither is it perfect. In fact, I’ve been publicly critical of some journalists for their love of sensationalism over substance. But there is a huge difference between holding the press accountable and accusing them of treason. Trump’s words as president have power. They can inspire good, bad and really ugly behavior. Given we are heading into a hotly contested midterm election, there’s no doubt Trump will ratchet up the rhetoric in hopes of animating his base to vote — translating into even more irresponsible attacks on the media.
What will it take for Trump rein his dangerous rhetoric? Because increasingly, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.