In denying the allegations of sexual assault and misconduct recently brought forth by multiple women, Donald Trump spent much of this week accusing the media of attempting a "coordinated character assassination" against him. Speaking at campaign rallies in Florida, Trump has claimed multiple mainstream media publications are colluding with Hillary Clinton to keep him from the White House. But while Trump's railing against the media isn't new (it's been a rather integral part of his campaign from the start) it's reaching a frightening new level.
"The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism," Trump said at an Oct. 13 rally in West Palm Beach, Florida. "They're a political special interest no different from any lobbyist or financial entity with a total political agenda. And their agenda is to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy."
Trump claimed journalists "collaborate and conspire directly with the Clinton campaign on helping her win the election" and, latching on to his often-used tactic of fear mongering, warned his supporters that "this is a conspiracy against you." Trump's attack on the media has given rise to the hashtags #RIPjournalism and #MediasNextTrumpLie on Twitter as his supporters seek to discredit the stories and sources alleging Trump sexually assaulted multiple women.
But while sticks and stones may break bones, Twitter hashtags rarely hurt. Instead, there's another, much more frightening consequence to Trump's railing against the media that anyone interested in preserving democracy and American values should be concerned about.
The hashtags #RIPjournalism and #MediasNextTrumpLie show that for as cockamamie as Trump's "coordinated character assassination" claim is, it's been at least marginally successful among his supporters. Furthermore, in declaring the media to be a liberal tool rigged against him, Trump sets it up so that no matter what new allegations or evidence comes forth, his die-hard supporters will already have their eyes and ears closed.
Trump's vilification of the press matters. It matters because a free press, one not punished every time a political figure feels insulted by a headline, is integral to democracy. The media, as much as Trump may decry otherwise, serves to hold public figures (like presidential candidates) accountable by fact-checking and investigating the claims they easily throw about on the campaign trail or the debate stage. By crying "corrupt media," Trump is persuading his supporters not only to ignore the women accusing him of sexual assault, but he's instilling an inherent distrust of society's gatekeepers, thus encouraging them to only listen to and believe whatever Trump says himself.
Just as Trump condoned violence against political dissenters in the primaries, his aggressive rhetoric on the media serves only to encourage his supporters to openly and fiercely hurl hate at reporters, many of whom have begun to report being heckled, booed, and verbally attacked at Trump events, sparking concerns for their safety. Yet the hate doesn't just happen at rallies. In September, Henry Gomez of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, shared a sampling of the racist hate mail Trump supporters have been sending him since election season began, including demands to see his "green card" (he was born in Ohio) and accusations his heritage should "disqualify" him from reporting on the 2016 election.
For all the cries heard earlier in the election about how the media was responsible for Trump's rise to GOP nominee, you'd think Trump might have more love for the papers whose headlines he dominated. Yet, the relationship between Trump and the press has never been especially smooth.
In June, Trump "revoked" press credentials for the Washington Post, barring the paper and its reporters from covering him on the campaign trail because he felt that along with allegedly publishing some false headlines about him, the Post was "being used by the owners of Amazon as their political lobbyist so that they don't have to pay taxes and don't get sued for monopolistic tendencies that have led to the destruction of department stores and the retail industry."
In July, Washington Post reporter Jose DelReal was barred from entering a Trump-Pence rally in Milwaukee as both a journalist and as a private citizen. Earlier this week Trump threatened to sue the New York Times unless it retracted a story regarding two women's claims he made unwanted sexual advances on them. This wasn't the first time Trump has talked about suing the Times. He tweeted about discussing a lawsuit against the paper with his lawyers in September. Perhaps even more frightening was the vow Trump made at a February rally to "open up our libel laws" if elected "so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money."
These hashtags might seem harmless, but they're indicative of a larger message that Trump has tried to instill in his supporters. If they can't believe anyone who disagrees with them and they can't believe the media, they're forced to continue only believing Trump — and that's dangerous for everyone.