As a young reporter for the Washington Post covering the corrupt administration of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, I knew what it meant to be targeted by a powerful politician.
Barry and his supporters trashed my reputation in D.C.’s black community, casting me as a sellout working for a white paper. I got calls telling me not to start my car and reminding me where my children went to school.
Then my house was broken into and nothing taken — but my wife found a butcher’s knife left on the bed.
At one point, Barry told the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham, he wanted her to hire more black reporters but “not like Juan Williams.”
Those bad days from the 1980s come to mind because of President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE’s current thuggish efforts to intimidate reporters. He reminds me of Marion Barry.
In many ways, Trump is the white Marion Barry.
They share a willingness to play racial politics, an authoritarian bent, and an open hostility towards journalists. There is one important difference: Trump is doing his damage at the national level.
Trump started his attacks on the media during his 2016 presidential campaign. Supporters at his rallies were heard shouting the word “Lügenpresse” at reporters. “Lügenpresse” is a German phrase that translates as “lying press” in English.
It was popularized by Hitler’s Nazi party to fire up crowds against reporters who covered the demagogue’s rise to power.
Then in 2017, Trump tweeted: “The fake News media […] is not my enemy — it is the enemy of the American people.”
This year, Trump is back at it again. After the press accurately quoted him as accepting Russia’s denial of interference in the 2016 elections — in direct contradiction of the U.S. intelligence community’s own assessment — he attacked the press.
“The Summit with Russia,” he tweeted, “was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”
This is more than an angry outburst from an impulsive president.
It is the same strategy of bullying and name-calling that polls show has already succeeded in diminishing trust in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation into possible Russian collusion with Trump’s presidential campaign.
Similarly, Trump doesn’t want his followers to trust the press. By tarnishing news reporters, he is telling his fans to ignore reporting on possible collusion and his possible obstruction of justice.
He thinks that if his followers ignore the media reports on the corruption probe, they will also ignore reports on his failure to keep campaign promises to build a wall, implement a better healthcare plan than ObamaCare and end the nuclear threat from North Korea.
Polls show most Americans don’t think reporters are bad. But Trump has succeeded in demonizing reporters among Republicans.
A July Quinnipiac poll asked voters: “Which comes closer to your point of view: the news media is the enemy of the people, or the news media is an important part of democracy?”
Overall, 21 percent of American voters agreed with Trump that the news media is the enemy of the people.
But 45 percent of Republicans held this view.
Among Democrats, 94 percent viewed reporters as an important part of democracy. Among independent voters, 74 percent did so. By contrast, only 44 percent of Republicans now agree that the free press is an important part of America’s functioning democracy.
As a journalist who is critical of Trump, I can testify to his success in insulating himself from criticism by tarring reporters as “the enemy.”
I have had death threats. My social media pages generate a daily stream of hateful, racist comments from self-described Trump supporters.
I’m a big boy. I’m able to shut out the hate. But Trump’s war on the media is not really about harassing me or any one news outlet.
He is going after a pillar of the nation’s liberties — the protections for a free press.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that a scenario where there would be newspapers but no government would be preferable to one where there was a government but no newspapers.
Recently, the publisher of the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, came to Washington to “raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric,” as he put it.
Sulzberger said he warned Trump that his attacks on the media are “not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.”
It was supposed to be a private meeting. But Trump leaked it with a tweet, in which he mischaracterized the meeting as time spent “talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, 'Enemy of the People.' Sad!”
No, Mr. President. You are asking your fans to close their eyes to true stories you don’t like.
It will be a tragedy for the nation if you succeed.
Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.