Violence has now been normalized on the streets of many American cities, in our places of worship where armed security is now seen as essential as an opening prayer and even in our schools, where children are trained on how to supposedly survive mass shootings before they can even write their own names.
That culture of violence — to which many of us have become immune — is trickling into American politics in a new and disturbing way, as many people have seen after The New York Times reported that a violent parody video of the president shooting up the news media, along with a slew of his political rivals, was played for the his supporters at a retreat held at Trump's Doral Miami resort.
Trump wasn’t there for the event, but he’s as much to blame as anyone for stoking this pitched climate of fear, bitterness and hatred that’s permeated the nation since he launched his White House bid ahead of the 2016 election. His role as the antagonizer-in-chief is unparalleled when compared to any previous occupant of the White House, and the normalization of that perceived role by many on the right is beyond unsettling.
But when the normalization of the president's truculence becomes coupled with content celebrating violence — even if cloaked as cartoonish memes — it becomes terrifying and dangerous.
That, however, is where we are as a nation right now, because the president has embraced the nation’s love for outlandish drama and, through his general indifference to or outright celebration of their purveyors, has made memes of violence against the media seen routine to many on the right. While right-wing hated of the media isn’t new, the memeing of it surely is novel.
The Watergate-era played a pivotal role in changing the way politicians, especially many on the right, viewed the press corps. Previously in American politics, lawmakers viewed the press corps as useful idiots whom they could largely trust not to discuss anything too controversial (from their well-known affairs to even American military movements) because the two groups were largely on the same page about trying to inform the American public.
But once a Republican president was forced to ingloriously leave the Oval Office under a cloud of reporter-induced shame, that party slowly started to view the press corps as the enemy. That wasn’t so much because what journalists were reporting was false, but rather because the nation’s scribes were actually sharing — in the open — the stories of corruption and immorality that had always been staples of Washington political life but which one didn’t discuss in polite company or share with readers.
It wasn't just Watergate that changed the conservative movement's attitude toward the media: It was the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, which made abortion legal. Once abortion was legal, the media covered it that way. That was abhorrent to GOP leaders who by the late 70s had allowed the party to become nearly fully co-opted by evangelical leaders led by Jerry Falwell, who viewed abortion as inherently immoral and the only political issue that mattered.
Thus, since the media had both changed public attitudes against Nixon by accurately reporting on his malfeasance and refused to report on abortion as anything other than what it was — the law of the land — the right turned against the publications who didn’t pretend to carry their water.
That’s how, in the late 80s and early 90s, Rush Limbaugh became a household name: Much like Trump, he brought comedy into far-right politics by mocking the nation’s traditional news outlets. His mockery then devolved into the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity helping foster a conservative culture that views news outlets they disagree with as the “Lamestream Media.”
Trump took that script and made it his own: He's dubbed the media “the enemy” and “fake news” and incited his followers to boo, mock, insult and even threaten the journalists who are reporting on his rallies, opening up a dangerous can of worms. And his followers ... followed his lead.
He's helped amplify and speed up what was the slow erosion of American decency (or, at least the puritanical view of which was pervasive at the start of the last century). His combative, petty and ultimately reality-TV style of life and politics seems to have helped speed up what was already a rapid devolution of American politics.
That’s enabled many self-appointed pundits online — or even the paid Fox News or CNN sanctioned talking heads — to view a video of the president slaughtering his perceived foes as either just another funny internet meme or as a completely acceptable way for Trump’s allies to show the nation what they view as the president’s plight.
But, just as Trump’s own perceived presidential plights have been of his own making, so is the cultural acceptance of political violence. The rhetoric of “battle” and “war” used with political opponents has now morphed into the press being dubbed “the enemy,” merely for us printing much that has since been proven to be reality. And now many conservatives view this confrontational style as natural in a modern, hyper-connected world where memes are often more "believable" than peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Some in Trump’s conservative base do share the blame for how we’ve now reached a place where there’s either an outright acceptance of a video mimicking the all too real dystopian footage it portends — but ultimately the buck stops with the president and those in his inner orbit who have willfully allowed themselves to become desensitized to this mayhem masquerading as political theater.
This, like many of Trump’s unforced errors, isn’t something us outsiders to conservative and alt-right circles can change. It’s only something the GOP can help change, because their party changed the nation’s attitude against the press. What started small has become huge, and it's roaming around the web unfettered. Only the right has the antidote for that: It's giving up the narrative of “fake news” altogether.
- Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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