Hard to believe it’s been less than a month since I blogged about the effort by the Trump administration to demean the news media and why people must pay attention. “Discrediting the Fourth Estate is the first step toward totalitarianism,” I wrote. “Not caring is the second.”
In four weeks’ time, those first steps have become an all-out sprint.
President Trump’s bizarre, often inaccurate news conference this week—essentially an hour-plus-long attack against every news outlet that hasn’t sung his praises—was followed by his far more ominous declaration via Twitter:
“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
There is your formal declaration of war, folks.
Of course, Trump is hardly the first president to beef about the news media. Chief executives as diverse as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush complained regularly about journalists. Richard Nixon bluntly told his Joint Chiefs of Staff “the press is your enemy” that’s eager to “stick the knife right in our groin.” Even Thomas Jefferson, early on a champion for the press, lamented in his presidential years, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
But such whining is far short of what President Trump has done. By declaring the media “the enemy of the American People,” Trump placed journalists in the same category as a wartime opponent.
Think about that for a moment. If we take Trump at his word—which is his expectation—the New York Times is ISIS, the Washington Post is al-Qaeda, CNN is Reagan’s “Evil Empire.” Further, Trump’s use of the term “fake” is deliberate. He is accusing the media not merely of negligence, but of a willful, calculated effort to undermine American society.
Thus comes the declaration of war. In Trump’s war, all patriot Americans must resist the enemy with heart and soul. Any sympathy for the enemy is treason—and in war, we know what happens to the treasonous.
This is where the United States of America now stands.
There’s a disturbing parallel. In 1933, when Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany, his government quickly implemented a policy called Gleichschaltung, in which every aspect of German society came under Nazi rule. Trade unions, political parties, even churches lost their independent roles and influence. And in less than a year, the Nazi government took complete control of all news outlets—a process that began with Hitler’s complaint of lϋgenpresse, or the “lying press.“
There’s a familiar ring in today’s America.
Let’s be clear: The news media aren’t always accurate. That’s especially true today, when getting a story first is more important than getting it right. So it’s essential for the news media to find the balance between speed and precision. It’s also crucial for the media to stop being played by the White House and start being champions for accountability—of themselves and of the government. That’s their role in a free society, a role that they are struggling to play effectively. If nothing else, Donald Trump has made that shortcoming plain.
That said, Trump’s declaration of war against the Fourth Estate, his labeling of journalists as America’s enemies, his as-yet-unspoken next step in that war, are truly frightening.
As in Revenge of the Sith, we’re in the moment of the Senate’s applause, the moment that Padme’ Amidala noted with despair.
What came next in that film? The death of the Jedi, and the founding of an empire.