Opinion writer

At his rally on Thursday night in Indiana, President Trump unleashed his usual attacks on the news media, but he also added a refrain that should set off loud, clanging alarm bells. Trump didn’t simply castigate “fake news.” He also suggested the media is allied with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe — an alliance, he claimed, that is conspiring not just against Trump but also against his supporters.

“Today’s Democrat Party is held hostage by left-wing haters, angry mobs, deep-state radicals, establishment cronies and their fake-news allies,” Trump railed. “Our biggest obstacle and their greatest ally actually is the media.”

In case there is any doubt about what Trump meant by the “deep state” that is supposedly allied with the news media, Trump also lashed out at the FBI and the Justice Department, claiming that “people are angry” and threatening to personally “get involved.”

Robert D. Chain, who was arrested this week for allegedly threatening to murder journalists at the Boston Globe while mimicking Trump’s language, also connected Mueller’s investigation to the media. “You’re the enemy of the people, and we’re going to kill every f–––ing one of you,” Chain snarled into one employee’s voicemail, according to FBI documents. “Why don’t you call Mueller, maybe he can help you out.”

Trump surely knew about this arrest when he repeated his attacks on the news media Thursday night — and when he connected the media to the Mueller investigation as part of a grand conspiracy against him and his voters.

Periodically in this country, whenever there is violence with a political cast, or whenever political rhetoric strays into something more menacing than usual, we hold debates about the tone of our politics and their capacity for incitement. Whether rhetorical excess can be blamed for violence or the threat of it is a complicated topic with no easy answers. But even so, in most or all of these cases, whichever side is culpable, most of our elected leaders on both sides have used their prominence to calm passions in hopes of averting future horrors.

This time, something different is happening. At this point, there is no longer any denying that Trump continues to direct incendiary attacks against working members of the free press even though his own language is being cited by clearly unhinged people making horrifying death threats against them.

Trump’s assaults on the media are different in another way, too. Previous presidents have tangled with the press, most notably Richard Nixon, who sicced his vice president on the TV networks. But as I discuss in my forthcoming book, even these presidents maintained a grudging acceptance of the news media as an adversarial mechanism of accountability that legitimately informs the public debate and thus retains a vital institutional role in our democracy.

Trump simply does not accept this at all. He is trying to destroy this foundational set of ideas in the minds of his supporters. And it seems to be working.

Where this is all going

The big political question of the moment is how far Trump will go in undermining our institutions and the rule of law as the walls of accountability close in around him. Trump has lost the public argument over these matters badly. A new Post-ABC News poll finds:

  • 63 percent of Americans support the Mueller investigation.
  • 53 percent say Trump tried to interfere with the probe in a manner that amounts to obstruction of justice.
  • 64 percent say Trump should not fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
  • 62 percent say Sessions is right to allow the Mueller probe to proceed. (Trump has demanded that Sessions protect him from it.)
  • 66 percent oppose a pardon for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and 67 percent say the case against him is justified.
  • 61 percent say Trump committed a crime by directing estranged lawyer Michael Cohen to make hush money payments.
  • A plurality of 49 percent supports beginning impeachment proceedings.

In other words, there is broad public faith that our institutional mechanisms of accountability are functioning properly; wide support for allowing them to proceed undisturbed; broad public conviction that Trump is corrupt and has improperly tried to obstruct that from happening; and wide opposition to any such efforts in the future.

Yet such efforts by Trump now look likely or inevitable.

Here’s what we’re facing. As the elections approach, a Democratic takeover of the House could look like a very serious possibility, which itself will ratchet up tensions. Mueller could issue new and damning findings about Trump himself or possibly more indictments of his cronies. Media scrutiny will produce more revelations. If Democrats do take back the House, serious oversight and possibly impeachment will suddenly become real scenarios for next year. Amid all that, as Brian Beutler details, Trump could still oust Sessions in the lame-duck period and replace him with a loyalist to constrain the probe, which would thrust the country into crisis.

In the context of all these looming prospects, Trump’s willingness to link his assaults on the media directly to the Mueller probe — and to Democrats, painting them all as part of a grand conspiracy against him and his voters — is seriously worrisome, particularly after an unhinged madman echoed similar language while allegedly threatening to murder journalists. Just think how much more immediate and threatening this made-up conspiracy could soon appear to those inclined to such feverish hallucinations, especially with Trump escalating his efforts to feed them.

The most charitable interpretation is that Trump is merely invoking this conspiracy against him and his voters to get them out to the polls, to stave off loss of the House and oversight or impeachment later. There is no reason whatsoever to grant Trump the benefit of such an innocent interpretation. But whatever his actual intent, there is no denying it: Trump is doing this in the full knowledge that someone out there might take him at his word, with deadly seriousness.