There are a variety of taglines that are popularly associated with President Trump. “You’re fired,” “believe me,” and “Make America Great Again” are but a few of the many catchphrases that have entered into the general American lexicon over the past two years on account of the Commander-in-Chief. Most of these range anywhere from cliché to simply confusing, yet oftentimes they are able to be accepted and ignored as unavoidable byproducts of the president’s thought process. There is one phrase, however, that rises above this threshold of inconsequence:
During an off-camera conversation with 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, Trump explicitly stated his intentions in using the term “fake news.” According to Stahl, the president responded to her inquiry by saying, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”
Nothing from this response is particularly surprising. In fact, the tactic is quite clear. That does not make it any less dangerous.
Not only does this sort of constant language shake people’s faith in the institution of the press, a vital tenet of American democracy, but it also creates a culture within Washington and beyond. It establishes precedent for those aligned with the president to employ similar tactics. When the president calls an organization fake and illegitimate, the path is clear for members of congress to follow suit and, in turn, shirk the forces accountability that would stem from that organization’s reporting. Past Congress, such tactics even enable common citizens to do the same, narrowing their own sources of information only to those that already adhere to their preconceived notions about whatever topic is being reported on.
Furthermore, this hostility toward the free press has resulted in literal violence toward reporters. Just this past Friday, President Trump campaigned in Montana to express his support for incumbent Republican representative Greg Gianforte. During the 2016 election cycle, Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter for The Guardian in response to a question about health care, apparently ‘body-slamming’ him after being asked. He went on to win the election, and was later charged and pled guilty to having committed misdemeanor assault. During Friday’s rally, President Trump announced to the audience that “any guy who can do a body-slam…he’s my guy…I shouldn’t say this, but there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
Apart from the inappropriate nature of this comment, this disregard for press safety also comes in the wake of heightened tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a writer for The Washington Post. Despite bipartisan support for sanctions and other measures against the Saudi government in response to Khashoggi’s death inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump has lagged behind this unified congressional response. Rather than committing to any sort of repercussive action against Saudi Arabia, Trump instead called it’s crown prince “a strong person,” who “has very good control.”
Ultimately this explicit disregard for the vitality of the press only leads the nation down one path; it is one detached from truth, immune from accountability, and defined by the breakdown of an informed citizenry. It is the vested power of the press to investigate and report on the actions of those in positions of power in American society, thereby enabling the public to educate themselves about the practice or malpractice of those who represent them. Should the president continue to erode this power through these displays of animosity and unabashed endorsements of violence, then that erosion will continue degrade the public’s capacity for political discourse and informed decision making. Even once presidency concludes, such scars are difficult to fully heal.