Enemy of the people; or, war is hell

If the press doesn’t like being called the enemy of the people, perhaps it shouldn’t be waging war against the president of the people — or at least the president of the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump.

Make no mistake — this is war. After the press decided that someone as crude and ignorant as Trump shouldn’t be the leader of the free world, it began an openly declared campaign of nuclear Armageddon against him, complete with mushroom clouds of invective every day. This assault began before Trump got to the Oval Office and has continued ever since.

To Trump’s supporters, the issue is not whether he interfered before the election, but that the press has interfered ever since by trying to overturn its result. Such a profoundly undemocratic effort makes the press a clear adversary to tens of millions of people.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens says Trump will have blood on his hands if any of his followers get so worked up against the press at his rallies that a journalist gets killed. Stephens worries that Trump’s more rabid supporters might take his sloganeering against the press literally.

But it isn’t Trump’s followers that get hysterical over every chant or tweet. They know that much of Trump’s talk is just role playing, politicking, a thin skin, a brawling instinct and lack of finesse.

It is the press, rather, that takes every Trump utterance to extremes in order to make him look unhinged. That’s their strategy for taking him down. In wartime, propagandists depict the enemy as fanatical and evil. So it is with the press and Trump, the deranged Donald Strangelove.

Will the news organizations who constantly portray Trump as treacherous, treasonous and traitorous, a danger to the world who must be removed, have blood on their hands if he is assassinated by a zealot, or if one of his staff gets killed by an angry mob outside a restaurant?

Trump, of course, is not the first Republican president to be attacked by the press. He’s just the latest in a long line of GOP leaders to be caricatured and demonized. George W. Bush was attacked in strikingly similar fashion. He too was portrayed as ignorant, dangerous and divisive, ruining America’s reputation abroad and causing constitutional crises at home. The anger of the right against such coverage has been building for decades.

Like an army at war, the press is filled with rumor and speculation. It speculates constantly about the next shoe that might drop, the next witness that might turn. Armies also use spies, as does the press with its endless anonymous sources. The unsigned op-ed in the New York Times was just the latest.

One rule of military and political war is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The press demonizes everyone who works for Trump, yet if a former staffer turns on him, the turncoat temporarily becomes the gold standard for the press, no matter how reviled he or she was previously.

Most press alarms are not only incendiary but ridiculous. Trump isn’t going to destroy NATO. He doesn’t hate immigrants. He didn’t endorse Nazis at Charlottesville; he just declined to be bullied by the press into sweeping denunciations of everyone there. And even if he wanted to, Trump couldn’t have jailed Hillary Clinton after the election like some banana republic dictator. “Lock her up” was just a campaign jingle. Everyone got that except the press, which used it as just another weapon in its war against Trump.

Trump isn’t even more chummy with the Russians than Hillary was when she pushed the “reset button” as Secretary of State. When Trump compliments Vladimir Putin, he’s just gaming him, angling for leverage. Maybe it’s not diplomacy, but it sure isn’t treason.

As for the institutions that Trump habitually rips, most of them need shaking up, which is another thing Trump’s supporters grasp better than the press.

Everyone is aware that a free press is essential to democracy. So are the three branches of government, for that matter. Criticizing the former does no more harm than criticizing the latter. The institutions are healthier for it.

The poor maligned press isn’t used to constant counterfire from the bully pulpit. Maybe it should be. War is hell.

Mark Godburn is a bookseller in Norfolk and the author of “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets.”