Every week, Donald Trump intensifies his attack on the rule of law and the fundamental American values that underlie it. In the wake of the Orlando shootings, he added two more.
— Expanding his proposed ban on all Muslim immigrants, he added migrants from any part of the world “with a proven history of terrorism” against the United States or its allies.
— He withdrew The Washington Post’s press credentials to campaign access. That was the culmination of a crusade that Trump has pursued for a month against Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon and the paper.
Make no mistake. Trump’s actions are part of his “crazy-like-a-fox” campaign strategy. And they fit together neatly.
Why the Post?
Trump’s stated reason for banning The Washington Post stems from a headline that read: “Trump suggests President Obama was involved with the mass shooting in Orlando.”
Here’s Trump’s post-Orlando comment on Fox News that prompted the headline:
“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”
In the same interview, Trump was asked to explain why he called for Obama to resign in light of the shooting and he answered, in part: “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”
What does he mean by “gets it better than anybody understands”? What’s the “something else in mind” that “people can’t believe”? What’s the “something going on”?
A Familiar Ring
Innuendo is an enduring Trump technique. It feeds irrational conspiracy theories that linger. And irrationality combines with the absence of fact-based analysis to become Trump’s most potent voter weapon.
For example, in April 2011, Trump revived discredited “birther” claims that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
“We’re looking into it very, very strongly. At a certain point in time I’ll be revealing some interesting things,” he told CNN. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding.”
What “”unbelievable” things were Trump’s investigators in Hawaii finding? Nothing. But irrationality has allowed his false claim to live on in the hearts of his constituents. Even today, 20 percent of Americans still believe that President Obama was born outside the United States and fall into one of two categories: nine percent have “solid evidence” to prove it; eleven percent admit that it’s just their suspicion.
It gets worse. Twenty-nine percent of Americans — and 43 percent of Republicans — say they think the President is Muslim. So now you know what Trump really means when he says “something is going on” involving the President and Orlando. And you know to whom he is saying it. Which takes us to the link between Trump’s current dual assault: Muslims and the press.
Apparently, it’s okay for Trump to imply vile and non-existent connections between the President, Muslims, and a terrorist rampage by an American citizen who wouldn’t have qualified for Trump’s proposed ban anyway. But apparently it’s not okay for the media to call him out on such dangerous demagoguery. It’s not sufficient for a widely respected newspaper to cover a story. It has to cover it precisely the way Trump wants it to read.
When he talks about “opening up our libel laws,” that’s what he really means. And when he says he thinks he’ll possess the presidential power to do so, he proves his ignorance and/or willful disregard of how individual states’ laws and the U. S. Supreme Court’s application of First Amendment principles shape that area of jurisprudence.
This pattern of revenge isn’t new for Trump, but his previous revocations of press credentials have received less attention: The Des Moines Register (after an editorial called on Trump to drop out of the race), The Huffington Post (too liberal), The Daily Beast (after an article citing Ivana Trump’s allegations against Trump that she later walked back), Politico (after writing an unflattering story about Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski), and BuzzFeed (never credentialed, probably because of a lengthy and unflattering article about Trump in 2014).
Univision was initially banned after Trump filed a $500 million lawsuit against the company for canceling its broadcast of Trump’s Miss USA pageant. Since settling that litigation in February, Univision says the Trump campaign has credentialed its reporters only twice.
And More Precedent
Apart from Trump himself, his words and deeds have historical forebears. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, fear led to Japanese internment camps. After the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon and China fell to Communism in 1949, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade included attacks on the U. S. Army and baseless claims that Communist spies controlled the State Department.
McCarthy fed on fear and paranoia. He survived because others were reluctant to challenge a dangerous demagogue. His fellow Republicans — even President Eisenhower — remained silent as he ruined thousands of lives. Only a free press brought him down and returned the nation to its senses.
Televised hearings and Edward R. Murrow’s March 9, 1954 investigative program subjected McCarthy and his methods to the disinfectant of sunlight. But for the preceding five years, he left destruction in his wake. Trump is far more dangerous than McCarthy ever was. And we don’t have five years to let him run roughshod over our country’s most fundamental principles.