Donald Trump crosses the line of acceptable political behavior so often that it is easy to become numbed to the danger he presents. A key example is his treatment of the press. An independent, robust free press is one of the things that most distinguishes a democracy from an authoritarian state. This is because the press, for all its faults, serves as a key countervailing force to unbridled executive power. When the press is belittled and browbeaten, as seen in Trump’s attacks on reporters and his threats against press organizations he doesn’t like, it shows a troubling imbalance of forces in our politics. Trump’s abusive treatment of those who cover and critique him warns us of the perils of a Trump presidency.
Mistreatment of the press by political actors like Trump does not arise out of thin air. It usually comes after the press has been verbally abused over a period of time. In the U.S., a campaign of vilification aimed at the “mainstream media” has been a Republican project for years. It began with aggressive attacks on the press during the Nixon/Agnew era, gained momentum with the rise of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, and became a constant refrain with the advent of Fox News in the 1990s. Bill O’Reilly at Fox soon became the mainstream media vilifier par excellence. Trump’s contemptuous rhetoric, using words like “absolute scum” to stigmatize the press, follows very much in the footsteps of these predecessors.
Trump, however, takes the right-wing campaign against the press one “yuge” step further. Like a third-world autocrat, Trump seeks to domineer the press through bombast and threat. The strategy is one of harassment, intimidation, control, and ultimately exclusion.
Trump’s harassment of the press is public and blatant. It includes the personal bullying and humiliation of reporters, such as his attack on Megyn Kelly, his mocking of New York Times disabled critic Serge Kovaleski, and his shaming of reporter Katy Tur in front of a crowd. Indeed, at rallies Trump often invites his audiences to express their anger toward the press box, a tactic that commonly results in taunting, spitting, and vulgar gestures.
Outright intimidation is used to create fear and submission. A key example was Trump’s recent threat to “open up our libel laws” so that he could sue news organizations for reporting things that did not meet his truth standards, whatever those might be. Trump makes no secret of his vendetta against the Washington Post and the New York Times (“If I become president, oh, do they have problems”). Such threats cannot be taken lightly even if most of Trump’s past suits have gotten nowhere in the courts. The burden of defending oneself in court is enough to make all but the largest players think twice.
The tactics Trump uses to control the press on a daily basis are, by most standards, obsessive. The going rule for reporters at his events requires their being corralled in pens for the duration. Contrary to other campaigns, which allow news people the freedom to wander at will, any attempt to go beyond the pens for the purpose of interviewing or observing members of the audience is strictly prohibited. Keeping the reporters isolated from the crowd allows Trump to restrict the flow of news to his speeches and away from things that might distract from the great leader himself. To do their job of covering events, reporters have often had to attend rallies as members of the public, a difficult task since they are without technical support and under constant threat of being identified and ousted by Trump’s plainclothes security force.
Outright exclusion from access to the candidate and his campaign events is Trump’s penalty for reporters or outlets that he disapproves of. News organizations as diverse as BuzzFeed, Daily Beast, Des Moines Register, Fusion, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, National Review, and Univision have been blacklisted either permanently or intermittently. The reasons vary: the Des Moines Register made the mistake of writing a negative editorial on Trump; Huffington Post erred by placing its articles on him in its entertainment rather than its political section; Mother Jones has no clue as to the reason other than its progressive stance. Meanwhile organizations like Political Cesspool, which calls itself “pro-White” and features David Duke on its mission page, have had no problem getting credentialed. While allowing special access and interviews to favored news outlets is a common practice in American campaigns, the exclusion of selected ones for political reasons is unprecedented.
Trump’s tactics should worry anyone, liberal or conservative, who cares about constitutional freedoms. The measures he has taken are counter to both the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment, which protects freedom of the press, along with the freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. If Trump can abuse press organizations, which at least have resources to respond and defend themselves, imagine what he could do to regular citizens who might incur his displeasure: people who speak, rally, or demonstrate against his policies, whistle-blowers within a Trump administration, ordinary people who stand in the way of one of Trump’s gigantic projects, and so forth. It is a chilling prospect.