Between his tweet about Mika Brzezinski’s bleeding face and the one with the video showing him pummeling a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his face, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke at a mass rally for veterans in Washington D.C., in which he also savaged the media. It has its own interests, he said. It’s trying to impose its agenda, he added. Journalists try to undermine the will of the people, he asserted. It’s un-American, he implied. But we are going to show them who’s in charge here, he bellowed, and the crowd stoop up in wild applause.
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The association to fascist 20th-century demagogues, from Franco to Mussolini to Hitler, was inevitable. The object of incitement might change, but the methods are tried and tested. Trump depicts the media as a demon. He is spreading poisonous propaganda against it, full of blood, gore, conspiracy and treasonous insinuations, in a style that could have starred in the Nazi rag Der Sturmer. He is accusing the media of standing in the way of the nation, of trying to undo its decision to vote him into office. He is trying to undermine the media’s credibility across the board. He is openly inciting against journalists, naming them by name, stirring up hate against them. He knows that this is what his crowd wants to hear, and their enthusiasm, which was on display during Wednesday’s rally at Kennedy Center, spurs him on and fires him up to escalate his attacks.
His legions of defenders, justifiers and enablers are also reminiscent of times gone by. On Fox News on Sunday night, supposedly learned commentators asserted that the media is getting its just deserts. That it has earned Trump’s outbursts. That journalists are indeed conspiring against him. That if they attack him he can justifiably attack them back, as if he wasn’t the all-powerful president of the United States whose job it is to run the country while their raison d’etre is, in fact, to criticize him. When CNN sacked three employees this week for broadcasting an unfounded story on ties between one of Trump’s aides and the Russians, it was taken by objective observers as an indication of the network’s tough attitude toward so-called fake news. Trump and his detractors, however, view it as a vindication of their accusations.
Other Trump defenders claim that his tactics are vindicated by their success. Trump’s “base” – they claim – loves his bluster and laps it up. They hate the media no less than him. Their appetite for his wild attacks is insatiable. They continue to support him, no matter what, proving that his strategy is working. Trump’s voters blame the media, along with other East Coast liberal know-it-alls, for their personal problems and for America’s challenges. They earnestly believe that rather than portray his stellar achievements, the media is distorting reality and painting a black picture. They are sure that Washington is now being ruled by a strong leader who won’t tolerate the travesty.
It’s hard to decide which is more depressing: The millions of Americans who are being duped by a president who is trying to shift attention away from the horrifying possibility that he was elected by virtue of Russian intervention, a president whose misogyny is so pronounced he doesn’t even try to conceal it, a president who is trying to peddle a modern version of the slogan once used by White Russians in pogroms against Jews – “Smite the journalist and save America!” – or Trump’s Republican supporters and defenders who refuse to come out against him, because they agree with him, because they’re scared of him or because they are wary of admitting how much they were mistaken in the first place to support him.
The rest of America doesn’t know how to handle the Trump phenomenon. There has never been a president who has broken the mold of the American presidency so harshly and so dramatically. The U.S. Constitution tried to prepare for such a day, but the imagination of its founders couldn’t foresee someone like Trump. Barring definitive proof of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” impeachment is not in the cards. And it’s hard to see U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s cabinet members summoning up the courage to invoke the 25th Amendment by which they could suspend his presidency for being unable to carry out the duties of his office.
The best-case scenario now is that Trump is engaged in a calculated and cynical strategy. At worst, journalists will be deterred from tackling him, perhaps even one or two will fall victim to violence, an act that could turn things around quickly. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, is that Trump’s outbursts are a symptom of overall insanity. If this is the case, then he won’t make do with the media – other minorities, including the Jews, will be next in line.
Worse, Trump’s behavior strengthens doubts and suspicions around the world about his mental stability. It encourages America’s rivals to provoke him and it increases anxiety among America’s allies that he can’t be relied on to react rationally. In such a scenario, Trump’s tweets and vulgar statements will be construed one day as an early warning sign that like dangerous megalomaniacs before him, Trump is an existential danger to America and the rest of the world.