Donald Trump's Rhetoric is no Longer Just Silly and Offensive: It's Dangerous and Undemocratic | Opinion

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters before departing the White House March 22, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida. Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the more than three years since Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for President of the United States, he sure has said a lot of silly things. One of my personal favorites is his explanation of how islands work: "[Puerto Rico] is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water." All presidents, of course, make gaffes, and it is not my intent to suggest that everything Trump says is senseless. After all, there is simply no denying that much of his rhetoric is also disturbingly offensive. In fact, that's sort of Trump's shtick. He seems to relish in demeaning and degrading others, in defending authoritarians and despots, and in giving cover to nationalists and racists.

During the course of his presidency, however, Trump's rhetoric has evolved from being merely silly and offensive to also being dangerous and undemocratic. Trump's rhetoric is dangerous in several ways. It undermines civility, erodes democratic norms, weakens the rule of law, fuels racial hatred, and promotes political violence. Since each on these outcomes could be its own column, I will limit my focus to the way his rhetoric threatens a free and independent press. This threat comes most obviously in the president's frequent attacks on the mainstream news media as "fake news" and "the enemy of the people." In his first 775 days as president, Trump has tweeted about "fake news" 362 times, which is more than once every other day.

He does this for no other reason than to undermine the public's faith in the fourth estate, which exists precisely to protect our country from sliding into autocracy. Trump admitted as much to 60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl in October 2018 when he said he does it to discredit the news. While fake news is a serious problem today, it does not at all mean what the president uses it to mean. Fake news, which is pervasive on social media, is a form of political propaganda that attempts to pass itself off as legitimate journalism. The Russian government weaponized fake news on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign to swing the election in Donald Trump's favor and, by all credible accounts, they were successful.

Fake news is not news that someone simply dislikes or disagrees with or even news with a political bent. The mainstream news media – at least in the United States – does not qualify as fake news because it is not in the business of disinformation and propaganda. That is not to say that the news media do not occasionally make mistakes. Of course they do. But when they make mistakes, they correct them. They correct them because journalistic ethics compel them to. Propagandists like the Russian government are not beholden to journalistic ethics, only to their political agenda.

Nor is pointing out that the mainstream news media cannot meaningfully be classified as fake news meant to suggest that news organizations are neutral. On the contrary, many news outlets have political biases. Some lean to the left and others lean to the right. But political bias, which refers to point of view, is not propaganda. There is no evidence, absolutely none, that serious news outlets which the president routinely accuses of being fake news (The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, etc.) are engaged in intentional efforts to deceive and manipulate the American public. The same, however, can no longer be said about the president.

In repeating the mantra of fake news again and again, Trump is very much trying to mislead the public. His efforts at deception, however, go well beyond discrediting journalists and news outlets that are critical of him. Last week, we learned that Trump was actively engaged in efforts to influence the public statements and congressional testimonies of those in his employ. He has critiqued not only journalists, but also the speech of comedians who are critical of him as well Saturday Night Live. He has threatened to tighten libel laws and go after networks he does not like. All of this is dangerous and deeply undemocratic. So, it was shocking when at CPAC last week, the president talked about the need to protect free speech on campuses. No modern president has done more to threaten both free speech and a free and independent press than Donald Trump.

Brian L. Ott is Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University. He is an award-winning scholar, who has spent more than 20 years studying rhetoric, media, and their intersection. His latest book, co-authored with Greg Dickinson, is, The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.