The crowd at a Make America Great Again rally in Pennsylvania on Thursday, stoked by President Trump’s statements, was particularly hostile to the press. Credit Al Drago for The New York Times
His demonization of the news media won’t fall on deaf ears.
The voice, if I had to guess, belongs to that of a white American male in late middle age. The accent is faintly Southern, the manner taunting but relaxed. It’s also familiar: I’m pretty sure he’s left a message on my office number before. But the last voice mail left almost no impression. Not this time.
“Hey Bret, what do you think? Do you think the pen is mightier than the sword, or that the AR is mightier than the pen?”
He continues: “I don’t carry an AR but once we start shooting you f—ers you aren’t going to pop off like you do now. You’re worthless, the press is the enemy of the United States people and, you know what, rather than me shoot you, I hope a Mexican and, even better yet, I hope a n— shoots you in the head, dead.”
He repeats the racial slur 10 times in a staccato rhythm, concluding with the send-off: “Have a nice day, n— lover.”
He doesn’t give his name. His number is blocked.
The call dates from the end of May, right after I had published a columndefending ABC’s firing of Roseanne Barr for a racist tweet. “Perhaps the reason Trump voters are so frequently the subject of caricature,” I wrote, “is that they so frequently conform to type.”
Four weeks later, a gunman storms into a newsroom in Annapolis, Md., and murders five employees of the Capital Gazette.
The alleged killer in the Annapolis shooting does not appear to have acted from a political motive. But the message I got in May was the third time I’ve been expressly or implicitly threatened with violence by someone whose views clearly align with Donald Trump’s. Otherwise, the only equivalent threat I’ve dealt with in my career involved a Staten Island man who later went to prison for his ties to Hezbollah.
Which brings me to the July 20 meeting between Trump and two senior leaders of The Times, publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial page editor James Bennet. As Sulzberger later described the encounter, he warned the president that “his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous,” and that characterizations of the news media as “the enemy of the people” are “contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”
Sulzberger’s warning had no effect. Nine days after what was supposed to be an off-the-record meeting, the president tweeted that he and Sulzberger “spent much time talking about vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!”
By now, it almost passes without comment that the president of the United States not only violates the ground rules of his own meetings with the press, but also misrepresents the substance of the conversation.
Also nearly past comment was the president’s remark, in a follow-on tweet, that the media were “very unpatriotic” for revealing “internal deliberations of our government” that could put people’s lives at risk. That’s almost funny considering that no media organ has revealed more such deliberations, with less regard for consequences, than his beloved WikiLeaks.
What can’t be ignored is presidential behavior that might best be described as incitement. Maybe Trump supposes that the worst he’s doing is inciting the people who come to his rallies to give reporters like CNN’s Jim Acosta the finger. And maybe he thinks that most journalists, with their relentless hostility to his personality and policies, richly deserve public scorn.
Yet for every 1,000 or so Trump supporters whose contempt for the press rises only as far as their middle fingers, a few will be people like my caller. Of that few, how many are ready to take the next fatal step? In the age of the active shooter, the number isn’t zero.
Should that happen — when that happens — and journalists are dead because some nut thinks he’s doing the president’s bidding against the fifth column that is the media, what will Trump’s supporters say? No, the president is not coyly urging his supporters to murder reporters, like Henry II trying to rid himself of a turbulent priest. But neither is he the child who played with a loaded gun and knew not what he did.
Donald Trump’s more sophisticated defenders have long since mastered the art of pretending that the only thing that matters with his presidency is what it does, not what he says. But not all of the president’s defenders are quite as sophisticated. Some of them didn’t get the memo about taking Trump seriously but not literally. A few hear the phrase “enemy of the people” and are prepared to take the words to their logical conclusion.
Is my caller one of them? I can’t say. But what should be clear is this: We are approaching a day when blood on the newsroom floor will be blood on the president’s hands.