Trump's Escalating War on the Media: Not Even Fox News is Safe | Opinion

President Trump's authoritarian tendencies are well-known and widely documented. From his praise of dictators and despots to his threats to investigate and jail his political opponents to his efforts to obstruct justice and operate above the law to the suggestion that his term as president should be extended, Donald Trump has repeatedly – through both his rhetoric and his actions – signaled his contempt for Democracy.

And, yet, he enjoys the highest public approval rating of his presidency. Why? Why does a significant portion of the country continue to support a president who has consistently undermined democratic norms, principles, and institutions?

Either they believe the ends justify the means (they're getting conservative justices, so they don't care). This is Mitch McConnell's game, and it lacks all sense of ethics. Or, and I think this is more likely the case for many Americans, they simply do not see the danger.

They don't see it because the president has convinced them not to trust their own eyes and ears. "What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening," Trump told listeners at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in June. For the past four years, Donald Trump has successfully waged a war on facts, truth, and perhaps most insidiously, the news media. This, too, is indicative of authoritarian leaders. But, again, his "followers" fail to register the rising danger.

That blindness is concerning not only because Trump's attacks on a free and independent press are frequent, but also because those attacks are escalating. In researching Trump's rhetoric concerning the news media, I have identified four distinct stages in the president's anti-news discourse.

Stage 1: Disparaging individual journalists

"Fake news" was not part of Trump's rhetorical arsenal during the 2016 US presidential campaign, and he did not start tweeting the phrase until after he was elected president. Though Trump routinely disparaged individual journalists as dishonest and pathetic throughout the campaign, he tended not to dismiss entire news outlets. Most infamously, Trump mocked a reporter for his physical disability at a campaign rally in 2015. But he also criticized individual journalists such Megyn Kelly and Katy Tur by name. This was Trump hitting back, as he has always done, at individuals who were critical of him.

Stage 2: Inventing "fake news" and demonizing the press

To date, Trump has tweeted about fake news 497 times, but not one of those tweets occurs prior to his election on November 8, 2016. Then, between December 10, 2016 and January 20, 2017 (Inauguration Day), Trump tweeted about "fake news" 11 times. So, the obvious question is, what changed? Why did Trump go from attacking individual journalists to trying to convince his followers that the mainstream news could not be trusted at all?

It was during that period that several news outlets began reporting on possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government. Concerned that he would be seen as illegitimate, Trump invented "fake news." Over time, he would increasingly use the moniker to refer to other stories as well, which simply disguised the fact that it was created to undermine the Russian collusion story.

Stage 3: Accusing news outlets of criminality

After Robert Mueller concluded his investigation (which did not exonerate the president) of Russian collusion, Trump escalated his anti-news rhetoric once again. Since the start of 2019, the president has used the phrases "corrupt news," "corrupt media," or "fake (corrupt) news" a total of 21 times. In using the term "corrupt," Trump is suggesting that the media's reporting is not only biased, but also criminal. In fact, on June 15, 2019, he baselessly accused The New York Times of "treason." There is only one reason to use this rhetoric, which is to pave the way for jailing and prosecuting journalists.

Stage 4: Threatening Fox News

Most recently, Trump has signaled yet another escalation in his anti-news rhetoric by attacking conservative-leaning Fox News. In one tweet, the president accused Fox News of "loading up with Democrats" and using fake sources. In another, he suggested that "Watching @FoxNews weekend anchors is worse than watching low ratings Fake News @CNN." It's clear what Trump is doing here; he's issuing a threat. He's telling Fox News to fall in line, or I'll come after you as well. This is a president who repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to go to any length to silence dissent.

Trump has already granted Saudi Arabia a pass for killing a journalist. This doesn't mean he'll soon start sending death squads to newsrooms. But it's an indication of what he can tolerate. There's plenty in the spectrum between rhetorical attacks and physical violence that can do tremendous damage to America's freedom of the press. It's frightening to think what's next in Trump's endlessly escalating war on the news media.

Brian L. Ott, a professor of communication studies and director of the TTU Press at Texas Tech University, is co-author, with Greg Dickinson, of The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the Politics of White Rage.

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