Marvin Kalb, senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center, is author of “Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, the new McCarthyism and the Threat to American Democracy.”
By now it all seems normal, except it’s not.
While Americans remain riveted on the sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, his nomination to the Supreme Court hanging in the balance, President Trump spent part of this past weekend lighting a fuse under his political base in West Virginia. Rarely missing a beat on Saturday, he ripped into Democrats opposing Kavanaugh, saying they’ve “gone loco.” He praised his “love affair” with dictator Kim Jong Un of North Korea, reveled in the stock market’s steady climb, and all but predicted a Republican midterm victory next month.
He also turned to his always-reliable foil: The media. Twice, in tones both angry and contemptuous, he pointed to the television cameras, producers and reporters corralled behind ropes in the rear of the crowded auditorium and bellowed that they were the “enemy of the people.” His fired-up supporters nodded in agreement and chanted “CNN Sucks” and “Lock Her Up.” It was as though they were stuck in a romantic shell of the 2016 campaign, forgetting that Trump has been president for the past 20 months, and that they have been either beneficiaries or victims of his chaotic governance.
Clearly, Trump enjoys campaigning much more than governing. But whether campaigning or governing, Trump has found a winner — especially among Republicans — in his relentless, ugly, mischievous attacks against the media. According to recent polls, nearly 1 in 3 Americans agree with the president that the media is the “enemy of the people,” and a hefty majority believes the media can no longer be “trusted.” Many feel reporters deliberately fasten on to negative stories for the sole purpose of undermining Trump’s achievements.
His media strategy, successful to this point, has been to criticize and, when possible, humiliate the media. As he told CBS’s Lesley Stahl earlier this year, “I do it to discredit you all, and demean you all, so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Trump has always had a love-hate relationship with the media. For example; he often labels the New York Times as “failing”; yet, as a native New Yorker, he appreciates the power and influence of the Times, and is forever courting its reporters and editors — hoping to win their respect and approval while doing everything he can to undercut and demolish them.
But Trump is playing with fire. By using the derogatory phrase, “enemy of the people,” he is unwittingly associating himself with the most vicious dictators of the 20th century, such as Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of Communist China. Trump has never felt the need to study history, so he apparently knows little to nothing about these dictators’ frequent use of the phrase to isolate, attack and murder their political opponents — usually reporters, writers and political dissidents.
Trump has not yet paid any political price for this mindless association with these dictators. In fact, many Republicans, whose memories stretch no further back than the Nixon administration’s attacks on the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” have cheerfully applauded Trump’s anti-media offense, no matter its historical roots.
For the moment, the president is happy to husband his political gains, wherever he can get them, but he may one day learn that, by attacking and thereby weakening the media, and by persuading large swaths of the public that the media is the “enemy of the people,” he is in fact weakening the very foundation of American democracy. One must assume that somewhere in his political armor is a dollop of old-fashioned patriotism.
From the very beginning of the American experiment with democracy, it has always been understood that “democracy” is only a word, deriving its strength from the public’s understanding and acceptance of its essential meaning, linking two key elements: the sanctity of the law and the freedom of the press.
Weaken one of these foundational concepts, and you weaken the other; soon the entire structure of democracy begins to wobble, shake and crumble.
And so, Mr. President, with all due respect to your office, the media is not the “enemy of the people.” Given your words and actions, maybe it would be a good time for you to look in the mirror.