On August 16, the Boston Globe will publish an editorial denouncing Donald Trump’s “dirty war on the free press.” They will not be alone. According to the Globe’s deputy editorial page editor, over 100 American newspapers ranging from major city dailies to local outlets will join with the paper in a united assault on this White House’s attacks on political media as the “enemy of the people.” The tension between media consumers and producers—regularly exacerbated by the president—has even been condemned in the United Nations. The institution’s outgoing high commissioner for human rights said that the president’s agitation verges on “incitement to violence”—a legitimate concern that justifiably haunts many of Trump’s domestic critics.
For some, the pretense of concern for civic decency and national comity melts away when those desirable conditions conflict with their team’s political imperatives. Among Donald Trump’s self-appointed phalanx in the conservative press, the fear that the president may again be creating the conditions for violence will be waved off. After all, the sources of this criticism are hardly objective, and Trump’s critics cannot be lent one inch of legitimacy lest they take a mile. But to dismiss the potential of incitement to produce anti-media violence is to be blind to the rhetoric-fueled political violence we’ve already witnessed in the Trump era. By and large, though, that violence is not the product of Trumpian incitement. Just the opposite; it appears to be the result of anti-Trump anxiety.
To mark the first anniversary of the terrible events in Charlottesville this weekend, a band of white nationalists just large enough to have gratuity included in their check descended on Washington D.C. There, they were confronted by a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators numbering in the hundreds. Between the counter-protesters, the journalists, and the police assigned to keep order, the handful of white supremacists who instigated this event quickly ceased to be of relevance. Unfortunately, the threat of civil unrest did not abate with the successful intimidation of the alt-right. The left’s more agitated elements quickly turned on the police and the press.
The anti-racist demonstrators paraded down the streets in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “All cops are racist, you better face it.” “No borders. No Wall. No USA at all,” another group of demonstrators shouted. “Last year they came w/ torches,” one of the protester’s banners read. “This year they come w/ badges.” The Washington Post reported that the demonstrators were confused and agitated by the large riot gear–clad police presence. That “confusion” led to a variety of confrontations, including one in Washington D.C. where an officer was pelted with objects and nearly torn off his motorcycle.
Police did not have it anywhere near as bad as the press. Demonstrators assaulted an NBC News reporter and tried to prevent him from filming the mass demonstration. “Fu** you, snitch ass news bitch,” yelled one demonstrator as he lunged at NBC News correspondent Cal Perry. ABC News reporter DeJuan Hoggard was confronted by protesters who were so agitated by the prospect of being filmed that they cut the audio cable on his recording equipment.
It would be ignorant to dismiss these and similar moves by potentially and actively violent left-wing organizations as the outbursts of an inchoate movement without an ethos. Anti-police violence and anti-media agitation are predicated on mature intellectual and organizing principles.
Mark Bray, a Dartmouth College historian and the author of Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street, explained that Antifa’s purpose is to “preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts.” As a movement, it “rejects the liberal notion that fascism is a school of thought worthy of open debate and consideration.” Writing in praise of Antifa’s “militant left-wing and anarchist politics,” the Nation’s Natasha Lennard mocked “civility-fetishizing” liberals who “cling to institutions.” Presumably, she meant institutions like the right of objectionable elements to peaceable assembly, or, in her words, “predictable media coverage decrying antifa militancy.” Animated by the increased visibility of white nationalism in the Trump era, Mother Jones published a less-than-condemnatory profile of the resolve of “left-wing groups” to resist white supremacy, which “sometimes goes beyond nonviolent protest—including picking up arms.”
These activists’ sentiments are not limited to the liberal fringe. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has picked up a failed liberal war on right-wing media’s credibility where the Barak Obama administration left off. The mayor has never been shy about dismissing Rupert Murdoch-owned properties like the New York Post and Fox News Channel, which he does not consider “real media outlets.” This weekend, de Blasio devoted himself to attacking these “tabloid” institutions for deliberately “increasing racial tensions” in America. In a world without these media outlets, “there would be less hate,” he said, “less appeal to racial division.” Given the political environment, you can see how this might be misconstrued as a call to action.
In the parlance of the militant activists on the streets, de Blasio is contending that these media outlets deserve to be “no-platformed.” And the mayor seems prepared to act on his exclusionary beliefs. When a credentialed Post reporter tried to approach the mayor this weekend at a public event, the mayor’s New York City Police Department security detail physically escorted the reporter out of de Blasio’s sight. As the Post correctly noted, the incident was not unlike the White House’s efforts to demonize CNN and bar its reporters from access to the White House.
The prospect of imminent violence resulting from white supremacist and anti-media fervor recklessly whipped up by the president needs to be urgently and forcefully confronted. As I and others have written, Trump’s penchant for demonizing the press and flattering his most unsavory supporters has the potential to radicalize his more unstable fans, who perhaps cannot see through the act. But the same is true for liberals. Their popular elected officials are demonizing media they don’t like, blaming them for racial tension in America and deeming them, in effect, fake news. Their left flanks are populated by ghoulish polemicists who are role-playing at violent revolutionary politics. And amid all this, the potential exists for these ingredients to yield precisely the kind of bloodshed that the press fears Trump may be inviting.