Media columnist

Hostility toward the media at Donald Trump’s rallies is nothing new. It infected the presidential campaign and has marred every raucous gathering of supporters since the election.

But on Tuesday night in Tampa, the extreme aggression dropped the basement floor another level.

This was a new low. And a scary one at that.

“I’m very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in someone getting hurt,” CNN’s much-maligned reporter Jim Acosta noted, as he posted video of the scene.

It showed a sea of worked-up Trump supporters screaming curses at him and aggressively gesturing with their middle fingers.

The New York Times’s Katie Rogers agreed, calling it “as hostile as I’ve seen people.”

Making matters worse was a dark novelty: The emergence at the rally of a cultish group called QAnon. These are the deranged devotees of a supposed government agent who they believe is waging war against the “deep state” that threatens the Trump presidency.

Believers were front and center at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, as The Washington Post reported.

“As the president spoke, a sign rose from the audience. ‘We are Q,’ it read. Another poster displayed text arranged in a ‘Q’ pattern: ‘Where we go one we go all.’ ”

The group, born on Internet message boards such as Reddit and 8Chan, is a close cousin to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led a gunman to open fire in a D.C. restaurant last year. The Huffington Post’s Andy Campbell described it as a mishmash: “It’s every conspiracy, all at once, an orchestra tune-up of theories.”

And although the group has staged public events in recent months, Tuesday night’s Trump rally was its real coming-out party.

What’s particularly troubling about QAnon’s embrace of Trump rallies is its love for armed conflict and quasi-military associations: This crowd likes guns.

As Will Sommer’s QAnon primer in the Daily Beast put it: “The general story . . . is that every president before Trump was a ‘criminal president’ in league with all the nefarious groups of conspiracy theories past: the global banking elite, death squads operating on orders from Hillary Clinton, deep-state intelligence operatives, and Pizzagate-style pedophile rings. In an effort to break this cabal’s grip, according to Q, the military convinced Trump to run for president.”

It brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s observation: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Trump ought to be doing everything in his power to calm the waters at his rallies before real violence — perhaps deadly violence — takes over.

Necessary as that is, the chances of his doing that are remarkably low. After all, for him, the reality-based media is the “enemy of the people.”

Rather, he and his closest allies, including his son and Sean Hannity at Fox News, are fanning the flames.

Brian Stelter of CNN identified, in his media newsletter, two megaphones that amplified the anti-press message on Tuesday: Eric Trump’s retweeting a video of the “CNN sucks” chants and commenting that this is “truth.” And Hannity’s on-air assessment, snidely informing the mainstream press that “the people of this country, they’re screaming at you for a reason.” (The purported reason being inaccurate or biased reporting.)

All of this is what New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger was talking about when he met with Trump recently to express his deep concerns about the president’s anti-press rhetoric, which has gone — in his words — “from divisive to increasingly dangerous.”

It fell on deaf ears, of course. Trump not only needs to use the mainstream media as a foil — a convenient and ever-present enemy. He is also intensely invested in undermining the reporting that surrounds special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of him so that he can ward off the negative effects of whatever Mueller finds.

In fact, Trump soon broke the agreement to keep the Sulzberger meeting off the record and instead began tweeting about what he insists on calling “fake news,” which is really the legitimate reporting that doesn’t reflect well on him.

Trump needs to change the tenor of these rallies. With more gatherings coming up this week, he should act immediately, first with a public statement that calls off the anti-media dogs. And then by his demeanor and his words at the events.

Defending press rights — and the safety of journalists — would be a sign of real patriotism, as opposed to hypocritical flag-waving.

That’s a fantasy, of course, given how crucial this coordinated anti-media messaging is for Trump.

Nevertheless, it would be a way for him to show that he is more than just the president of his base. And it should happen before his hands are splashed with blood.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan