Before too long, a reporter will become a direct casualty of the Trump era.
With the ever-present caveat that predictions are worthless: an American journalist is going to get murdered as a direct result of our current political climate. Hating reporters, of course, is nothing new. But neither is political assassination. Sometimes when you sense a storm rolling in, you realize that the sunny days you’d been enjoying were actually the exception, rather than the norm.
Here and there and everywhere, explicit violent threats against members of the media are on the rise. Most of these threats are bullshit, trash talk, empty venting by angry people who would never imagine doing anything in real life. But not all. As with all types of threats, some small percentage of them will be backed up by serious intent, and as the frequency of threats grows, so too does the likelihood that one or more of them becomes reality. This is all on top of the normal, latent threat level that accompanies a job in journalism—the sort of danger that accompanies any job that involves frequently and publicly criticizing, exposing, or embarrassing people. The Capital Gazette shootings earlier this year and the murder of TV reporter Alison Parker live on air were both examples of the regular kinds of risks that journalist face: angry, crazy readers or story subjects and a constant opportunity for a maniac to achieve instant publicity for a brutal act. That’s always there. Today, though, we have the whole “enemy of the people” thing. All the maniacs now have a hard-to-resist political motive. And, as always, they have lots of guns. Inevitably, someone will seize on both.
Is this all Trump’s fault? Yes. More specifically, Trump’s Goebbels-esque determination to hammer the public with the idea that Fake News Is The Enemy has served as proof of concept to hundreds of lower-level elected officials across the country, whose beady eyes have now lit up with the realization that they too can brush off every negative story in the local paper about how they hired their cousin to head the local Mosquito Control Board by mouthing the phrase “fake news” and charging the local city council reporter with being a tool of anti-America global elite interests. By being unafraid to ceaselessly pursue the demonization of the media as a tool for enhancing his own political prospects with utter disregard for broader consequence and a world-class lack of shame, Trump has shown all the lesser opportunistic right-wing politicians of the nation that this is a formula that works, as long as you really lean into it. This sort of bold scapegoating only works if it is relentless, unapologetic, and waged with a completely inappropriate level of anger, because such fiery measures are necessary to convince everyone not to believe what they see before their eyes. The genius of all this is that the press, unlike your political enemies, is pathetically unequipped to fight back against these rhetorical assaults, having spent decades unilaterally disarming themselves in the name of Journalistic Impartiality. The press is a soft target for a man of Trump’s wolfish predilections. And those entranced by such a man will begin to eye reporters in the same way a mongoose eyes a snake: a threat that, fortunately, they have the tools to neutralize.
The American discourse does not need “civility.” But it does need nonviolence. Barring that, it needs gun control. Unfortunately we have none of the above. So it is only a matter of time.
I have covered Trump rallies and seen the old men hollering at the press pen. I have covered an NRA convention where the “mainstream media” was booed far more lustily than actual mass murderers. People employed in the media don’t give a damn, really, as long as you don’t shoot us. But time and the political winds and all the pretty guns are not on our side. Someone is going to get killed. Whether it’s Jim Acosta shot down at a Trump rally or some nameless local political reporter stalked and murdered in private, it will happen because someone out there will have become convinced that it is the right thing to do. To protect America. Most reporters, who tend to be depressive, grandiose careerists with a pathological need for attention, are not heroes; but whoever is the first to get killed as a result of the sick political climate that enables Donald Trump’s obsessive ambition will actually be a martyr, in the same way that flawed people who get drafted and sent off to war become heroic in death, if not in life. The journalist who gets killed will end his or her life as a monument to the majestic but mistaken idea that the press can stand separate and apart from politics in a democracy. It is an idea that is too beautiful to exist in modern America. As other dictators, strongmen, and craven political opportunists have demonstrated many times before, an impartial press is no match for the unrestrained human ambition for power. For a long time reporters have labored under the noble delusion that they are the Red Cross on the battlefield of truth. When they start getting murdered, they’ll realize they were soldiers all along.