I used to take a certain comfort in the knowledge that there were places in this world, beginning with America, where a leader would never consider declaring open season on reporters, branding them enemies of the state.
So much for that idea.
Friday night, when Donald Trump wrote to his followers that the news media are "the enemy of the American people," he locked and loaded the minds of a certain segment of his most loyal supporters, people proud of their fanaticism, proud of their prejudices, and proud, perhaps more than anything, of the revolver in the nightstand, or the deer rifle on the rear window rack, or God knows what assault weaponry stored, ready or not, gun-locked or not, behind the coats in the front closet.
Friday night, Trump painted a target on tens of thousands of backs. In one push of a button, Trump put at immediate risk every American journalist who does not fit a very narrow profile. In one tweet, he endangered every reporter, news anchor, commentator and crew member, who works for a media outlet outside of the secure sleeve of Breitbart and Fox News, every journalist who is the wrong kind of woman, the wrong kind of religion, every media figure who is not native-born, not northern European in lineage, not fiercely pro-Trump.
The president will never, ever, accept responsibility for what he has done. But we all know this, whichever side of the political divide we find ourselves:
When a gun nut kills a reporter, Trump will be there.
He will be right there, even if he pointedly says nothing about it; does nothing about it. Trump will be there, even if he's asked directly about it, and responds by talking about how many electoral votes he received.
Trump will be there, even if he finds a clever, indirect, deeply encoded way to blame the victim, blame the media, and support, by extension, the murderer.
We know how this works. Trump's winks and nods to white supremacists, his astonishing and in-your-face refusal to acknowledge threats against Jews in dozens of communities nationwide, have unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes.
Now it's time to redirect the aim of violent white nationalists to a new target. The day after his "enemy of the people" announcement, Trump decided to make it worse.
"I will always be with you, I promise you that," Trump told an adoring crowd at a bizarre "campaign rally" in Melbourne, Florida. To eliminate any doubt as to where he stood, and whom he excluded, he told them "I want to be in a room filled with hard-working American patriots who love their country, who salute their flag, and to pray for a better future."
Lest there be any doubt who in the crowd are parasitical, unpatriotic, hate their country, and hope for a worse future, Trump swung his aim to the reporters covering the speech, the "dishonest media," whom he summarized in an ominous dog-whistle of a threat.
"They don't get it, but they are starting to get it, I can tell you that," Trump said. "They have become a big part of the problem," he continued.
The answer to the problem came in verbal semaphore to activists only too ready to act as his direct agents: "When the media lies to people, I will never, ever let them get away with it."
And then the lock and load, the implied order from the commander in chief, complete with built-in deniability:
"I will do whatever I can that they don't get away with it."
These journalists will never be a part of the American people, Trump concluded. "They have their own agenda. Their agenda is not your agenda."
By Monday, the focus on the press as the enemy was nudged tighter. Interviewed on Israel Channel 10 news, Special Assistant to the President Boris Epshteyn denied suggestions that Trump had crossed a red line with the "enemy of the American people" designation.
"The president, as an American citizen, is able to criticize the media when he sees them treat his presidency – and therefore the American People – unfairly."
And there it is. Opposition to this president is opposition to the entire American people.
Is there any reason to fear that someone will translate Trump's declarations into real-life intent to harm? There is.
White supremacist male Americans have taken unprecedented courage and inspiration from a modern president whom they see as cut from their cloth. And Trump has done everything he can not to disappoint them.
After repeated refusals on the part of the White House to condemn a recent flood tide of anti-Semitic incidents, and staunch opposition even to mention of the words "Jewish" or "Jew" in connection with the Holocaust, more than a hundred of graves were desecrated late Monday in a St. Louis Jewish cemetery.
"Stones can be replaced and the dead are dead," wrote my colleague Josh Marshall of the attack on the cemetery where his mother is buried. "But it strikes hard against something deep inside of me, something even over the decades still umbilically connected to her, to think that this barbarity which she was free from in her life, at least physically, would lap up against her in death, even in this very, very muted way."
"Hate and barbarity are always with us," he wrote. "But today they are being granted permission to act." The tide of barbarism, he concluded, "is coming for Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, every group that is marginalized. We must fight it everywhere and not simply with words and ideas. It's a fight, not a metaphor. Treat it that way."
The cemetery desecration coincided with a fourth wave of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in dozens of American cities and towns in the last two months.
The White House, for its part, signaled that, from its standpoint, if it came to a showdown between American Jews and American white supremacists, it was no contest.
In a vague statement which NBC extracted like oral surgery, a White House press secretary was indirectly quoted as saying that "Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom."
The statement, which neither names Jews as victims nor cites the nature of the crimes, and at no point mentions anti-Semitism, adds "The president has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable."
Um, no. What the president has made abundantly clear is that white supremacists, Nazis, Klan leaders and, yes, Jew- and journalist-hating gun nuts form an essential part of his base.
Only after additional hours of oral surgery, a terse but actual condemnation was pried out of Trump. "Anti-Semitism is horrible, and it's gonna stop, and it's got to stop."
In any case, Jews have proven too much trouble as a target. Better to go after a group which is more easily hated, more vulnerable, less trouble. Like journalists.
Trump has already made the switch. And he knows it will work. As he told the crowd in Florida, "We know our people. We know our people."
Now we know your people, too. And if, God forbid, they resort to violence, we'll know who was truly to blame.
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