Why I believe Donald Trump’s war on the free press will end with journalists being killed

This isn’t anti-Trump hyperbole. The warning signs are everywhere.

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Question: How long until a journalist is attacked, and maybe even killed, by a screaming, gun-toting, MAGA hat-wearing Donald Trump supporter? Answer: sadly, it’s only a matter of time.

This isn’t anti-Trump hyperbole. The warning signs are everywhere. “They started the war,” a caller to US cable network C-Span said on 3 August, referring to CNN hosts Brian Stelter and Don Lemon. “If I see them, I’m going to shoot them.”

The day before, on 2 August, MSNBC host Katy Tur read out some of the messages she had been sent by Trump fans. “‘I hope you get raped and killed,’ one person wrote to me just this week,” Tur told her viewers. “In case you want to argue that this has nothing to do with the president, the most recent note I got ended with ‘MAGA’” (Trump slogan Make America Great Again).

Two days before that, on 31 July, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta was surrounded by dozens of angry Trump supporters, who shouted and swore at him as he reported from a Trump rally in Florida. “I’m very worried that the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt,” he later tweeted.

Let’s be clear about two things. First, the president of the United States must be held responsible for these growing threats of violence against members of the free press. He is leading a “hate movement against journalists”, to quote New York University professor of journalism Jay Rosen. In order to deflect from the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s extensive ties with Russia – which, in recent weeks, has seen his son Don Jr looking increasingly vulnerable over a Trump Tower meeting he held with Russian lobbyists in the summer of 2016 – the president has been set on delegitimising the media and “flooding the zone with shit”, to borrow a line from his former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

At his rallies, Trump encourages the crowd to chant “CNN sucks!” and to boo the assembled reporters at the back. On Twitter, he smears journalists as “fake”, “sick” and “enemies of the people” – echoing the likes of Goebbels, Stalin and Mao.

Second, Trump does not care whether his inflammatory and insulting rhetoric results in people getting hurt. It simply does not bother him. Don’t believe me? On 23 January, it was reported that a Michigan man had made several threats over the phone to CNN, telling journalists there he was going to kill them all. According to court documents, the caller told the operator, “Fake news. I’m coming to gun you all down.” The next morning, what did Trump do? He tweeted yet another attack on… “fake news CNN”. The. Very. Next. Morning. To call such behaviour irresponsible would be an epic understatement: it’s callous, reckless and, above all else, dangerous. Since coming to office, Trump has retweeted images of the CNN logo covered in blood on the sole of his shoe; a cartoon of a Trump train running over a CNN reporter; and a video of him punching a person who has the CNN logo superimposed on their face.

On 28 June, a man walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Maryland and shot and killed five employees. Trump’s response? He issued a pro forma condemnation of the murders – journalists, he said, “should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job” – but only five days later, on 3 July, he was back to slamming the media on Twitter as “the Opposition Party” and “fake news”. Again: callous, reckless, dangerous.

Some say that he isn’t the first president to clash with the press; that it is important to put Trump into historical perspective. Abraham Lincoln shut down newspapers during the US Civil War. Richard Nixon included several high-profile journalists on his infamous “Enemies List”. Barack Obama spied on the Associated Press and used the Espionage Act to imprison a record number of reporters’ sources.

Yet as Courtney Radsch from the Committee to Protect Journalists told me, the “fundamental difference” between Trump and his predecessors is that, today, for the first time, there is not even “rhetorical support for press freedom at the highest levels of the US government”. At a press briefing on 2 August, for example, CNN’s Acosta asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to disavow her boss’s noxious description of the press as “enemies of the people”. She repeatedly declined to do so, prompting a frustrated Acosta to walk out.

Other Trump loyalists have been unwilling to defend the president’s increasingly incendiary language. Anthony Scaramucci, who served as White House communications director for all of ten days in the summer of 2017, told CNN last weekend that the president might have a “right to be upset” about what he perceives to be media bias against him but “the rhetoric that he’s using I think is very, very bad for the country”.

“Bad for the country” is another understatement. Trump’s stoking of anger and resentment against reporters not only undermines the First Amendment but puts those reporters in the crosshairs of his most crazed and violent supporters. He knows this. He has been told this by, among others, the New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger. And yet he does nothing to change course.

So I hate to agree with the anti-Arab, climate change-denying neoconservative Bret Stephens, but he was spot on in the New York Times on 4 August. “We are approaching a day when blood on the newsroom floor will be blood on the president’s hands,” he wrote, while recounting a death threat that he received from a Trump supporter. Of course, I hope and pray that Stephens is wrong. But I suspect he isn’t. 

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article appears in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State