As this election year gears down toward a frenzied conclusion, one of the constants of modern American politics, Republican demonization of the mainstream news media as “biased,” is reaching a new level of savagery at the hands of Donald Trump.
Commenting on the tone of Trump rallies this week, Politico’s Ben Schreckinger was clearly shaken by the anti-media hate fever:
As the Republican nominee has resorted to more extreme denunciations of the press in recent days, his supporters have followed suit. Chants of “CNN sucks” have become commonplace at Trump’s rallies this week and members of the traveling press were called “whores” and “press-titutes” as they filed out of a Thursday afternoon rally in West Palm Beach. Minutes before, Trump had accused reporters of participating in a vast globalist conspiracy against his campaign and American workers.
No, it’s not just rootless cosmopolitans and international bankers who are in league with Crooked Hillary to destroy the U.S. economy and keep the white man down. It’s also the media folk who made the second presidential debate a “one-on-three” unequal battle, as Trump self-pityingly (or more likely, cynically) argued in accosting the two moderators.
Crowds that once booed and shouted at the press mainly at Trump’s prompting — when he would decry them as “dishonest” and “scum” or demand that television cameras pan his crowds — have now begun spontaneously targeting the press on their own, at a scale not yet seen in this campaign, or any in memory on American soil.
Now Ben Schreckinger is pretty young, and so cannot remember George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, wherein it was standard procedure for the candidate to point out liberal Yankee reporters to his angry supporters at campaign events. But Wallace seemed to be toying with mainstream media figures rather than actively threatening them, and he was never a major-party presidential nominee, either.
It is also hard to think of a precedent for a presidential candidate who has made the game of “beat the press” (to borrow the name of Dean Baker’s blog, which aims a critical but judicious eye at economics reporting) so integral and multifaceted a part of his campaign. The immediate motive for the latest bout of Trumpian media-bashing is to counter the drumbeat of new allegations about the mogul’s crude and possibly illegal sexual behavior and his habit of saying creepy things about women. What the media ought to be covering, say Trump and his surrogates, is the WikiLeaks disclosures of Clinton campaign emails. But the broader trend in the Trump camp’s rhetoric is to go “full Breitbart”: to regard all “Establishment” politicians and media outlets, even those normally thought of as conservatives, as part of a conspiracy to defend the status quo. For readers who have risked singed hair and shocked sensibilities by reading the website recently run by Trump’s campaign chairman Stephen Bannon, Breitbart.com turns the volume of media-hatred right up to 11.
Arguably these developments are mainly of interest to journalists who with good reason fear that their ability to do their jobs — and perhaps even their liberty — could be at risk if Trump somehow wins. But there is growing danger to the integrity of the election itself, and to civic peace on and after November 8.
The same allegedly lying and conspiring media who are tormenting poor Trump are the people who will report on and interpret the elections toward which we are barreling. Trump has already conspicuously warned that the election is “rigged” or will be “stolen” and is stirring up his supporters to police voting sites for signs of chicanery. To be sure, “voter fraud” is mostly imaginary, but it’s an emotionally powerful symbol of white fears that minority folk will be herded by their government-benefit paymasters to the polls to vote themselves more welfare (and/or less immigration enforcement).
Let’s say the Breitbartians gin up some real Election Day hysteria about the “rigged” or “stolen” election, and it merges with rumors or even reports of election-machinery hacking — say, from somewhere in the vicinity of Russia. You have all the ingredients for a disputed election, and perhaps real and widespread violence. After all, if the people telling us what’s happening are part of a conspiracy to change what’s happening, what other recourse does the frightened patriot have?
In the first presidential debate Trump famously promised not only to accept defeat if it comes to pass, but to “support” a President-elect Hillary Clinton if there is one. But he began backing away from that pledge almost immediately, and it is getting hard to imagine him on November 9 telling his supporters to stop demanding Clinton’s incarceration and begin treating her as a legitimate chief executive. Besides, it was one of those lying debate moderators who ambushed Trump with the question about accepting Clinton, and you can’t trust any of them, can you?