The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sarah Sanders won’t condemn the vitriol toward the media and Jim Acosta among Trump’s base

Despite his heavy reliance on the media to build his brand, President Trump has attacked the mainstream media repeatedly since the days before he entered the White House. And increasingly, Trump supporters are demonstrating just how aligned they are with his view that the political press is the enemy of the people.

At the president's Tampa rally Tuesday, Trump supporters surrounded CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta while he was doing a live bit. They booed, shouted profanity and gestured toward Acosta to show their level of disgust with him specifically and the media more generally.

And the following day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to blame the media for the mob mentality of the people who support the current administration most.

The president “does not support violence against anyone or anything,” she said Wednesday at the daily press briefing. “When it comes to the media, the president does think that the media holds a responsibility. We fully support a free press, but there also comes a high level of responsibility with that.”

“This is a two-way street. We certainly support a free press. We certainly condemn violence against anybody, but we also ask that people act responsibly and report accurately and fairly.”

Even if Sanders's assertion that journalists have behaved unfairly is correct, many Americans see the behavior that Trump supporters have directed toward reporters — including calling for their death — as worthy of condemnation.

And while the degree of the vitriol might be surprising — one person held up a baby in a onesie wearing a “CNN sucks” button — those who tune into Trump's tweets know that no media outlet has received more of the president's ire than CNN.

No journalist specifically has been on the receiving end of attacks from Trump and his aides more than Acosta. The reasons Trump supporters dislike Acosta vary. Some argue that he is attempting to build his profile with his aggressive and visible questioning of the president and his aides. Others claim that he does a poor job of concealing his own biases in his reporting. Another theory is that to many of those who support Trump's vision to “make America great again,” Acosta is perhaps a literal representation of the fears and anxieties that led them to vote for Trump.

Multiple surveys and reports after the election showed that anxiety about a changing America was a main factor in why some people were drawn to Trump, a candidate who called Mexican immigrants murderers and rapists while announcing his presidency. For those who yearn for a time when “American values” were synonymous with the ideals of citizens who are white, Christian, heterosexual and traditionalist, people like Acosta, a media figure and Cuban American who regularly and loudly questions Trump's policies, are a threat.

Many of the people who went to the polls driven by fear and anxiety are now going to rallies, projecting that fear and anxiety onto those whom they see as the primary obstacles to making America great. In a very real way, journalists like Acosta are challenging the America that Trump and his supporters are trying to create and using their platforms to do so. Many Trump-supporting Americans simply do not like it.

This may be understandable, but it can be demonstrated inconsistently. It has been noted that after the cameras go off, many of those harassing Acosta stop to pose with him for photographs and even engage him in conversation.

For some, this may be one big reality show, but the idea that all involved share that state of mind is risky. With journalists being killed at work, attacked at rallies and harassed regularly on social media, safety is a real concern for those seeking to hold the president accountable for his words and actions. The dangerous outcomes that many fear will result from this rhetoric and behavior, like those New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger says he tried to convey in his meeting with Trump, would not at all reflect a great America.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Aug. 1 called insults shouted at CNN reporter Jim Acosta by President Trump’s supporters “freedom of speech." (Video: Reuters)