On his way to campaign rallies in West Virginia and Indiana on Friday afternoon, President Trump stopped to answer questions from the media.
Karen Travers of ABC News raised a question that’s gained heightened attention in the past week, after a fervent Trump supporter was charged with mailing a number of bombs to Democratic officials and after a man echoing Trump’s rhetoric on immigration allegedly killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“Half of Americans say you’re encouraging politically motivated violence with the way you speak,” Travers said.
“No, no. You know what? You’re creating violence by your questions,” Trump said, pointing at her.
“Me?” she replied.
“You are creating — you,” he said. “And also a lot of the reporters are creating violence by not writing the truth."
“The fake news is creating violence,” Trump continued. “And you know what? The people that support Trump and the people that support us — which is a lot of people; most people; many people — those people know when a story is true, and they know when a story is false. And I’ll tell you what. If the media would write correctly and write accurately and write fairly, you’d have a lot less violence in the country.”
Travers’s question appears to have stemmed from a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday. We found that 49 percent of Americans believed that Trump’s rhetoric did, in fact, encourage violence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, far more Democrats (more than three-quarters) hold that position than Republicans. About half of independents said they believed that Trump’s rhetoric encouraged violence.
But then, Trump is a typical Republican in that he accuses the media of encouraging violence. Our poll also found that a bit less than half the country said the media encouraged violence, with more than two-thirds of Republicans and half of independents agreeing with that idea. (Most Democrats said the media neither encouraged nor discouraged violence.)
This sentiment is of a piece with Trump’s long-standing excoriation of the media as the “enemy of the people.” While earlier this week he attempted to say that only “fake news” earned that title, he has made clear repeatedly that he means coverage that isn’t entirely positive.
After Trump defended his pugnacious approach to the media in an interview this week, Ainsley Earhardt — one of the hosts of Trump’s go-to morning news show, “Fox & Friends” — defended the president.
It “has to be frustrating,” she said, when the media report something that’s “completely different than what you mean.”
“That’s why he is calling it fake news,” she continued. “He’s saying if you don’t want to be called the enemy, then get the story right, be accurate and report the story the way I want it reported.” That last part, included intentionally or not, is certainly accurate.
At a rally in Florida on Wednesday, Trump made a similar case.
“We have forcefully condemned hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice in all of its ugly forms, but the media doesn’t want you to hear your story. It’s not my story. It’s your story,” he said. “And that’s why 33 percent of the people in this country believe the fake news is, in fact — and I hate to say this — in fact, the enemy of the people."
That data point comes from polling by Quinnipiac University. The bulk of those who agreed with the statement were Republicans. Trump’s condemnations of divisiveness are also best considered in a broader context.
“The left-wing media doesn’t want to solve problems,” Trump continued at the rally. “They want to stoke resentment.”
Trump has repeatedly argued that his efforts to unify the country are impeded by the media’s reporting. It’s fair to note that opposition to the president is heavily a function of partisanship, a powerful force that Trump often leverages to his own benefit. Much of it also stems from Trump’s near-exclusive advocacy for issues focused on his fervent base of support and from his affection for publicly disparaging his opponents.
What’s important about the new Post-ABC poll is how readily Republicans accept the idea that it’s the media that are responsible for encouraging violence. Critical reporting on Trump is viewed as unfair and therefore divisive and, apparently, therefore a step toward political violence. Americans should want a critical press, but Trump has effectively leveraged long-standing antipathy to the media (especially on the right) to suggest that reporting should be broadly dismissed. Now, explicitly: that this reporting leads to violent places.
That this is a dangerous argument to reinforce should be obvious. Ironically, this disparagement of the media as fomenting violence may itself be an example of Trump ramping up dangerous rhetoric. (Ten percent of Republicans in our poll thought that both Trump and the media encourage violence.)
How the media bear blame for the mail bombs or the synagogue shooting is not clear, much less to the exclusion of Trump. A reporter present for the president’s comment to Travers seemed similarly baffled.
“How so?” he asked. How was it that the media encouraged violence?
Trump didn’t respond.