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Commentary: Trump's efforts to delegitimize media, election process strike at heart of democracy

Violence, conspiracy theories are scary trend
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-23 12:00:18-04

CINCINNATI -- As the traveling press corps filed into U.S. Bank Arena at Donald Trump’s Cincinnati campaign stop Oct. 13, his supporters welcomed the reporters with boos, jeers and angry gestures.

“Tell the truth!” the crowd chanted at them as they took their seats in the media area. “Tell the truth!”

The anger of Trump’s Cincinnati supporters was palpable. It became so intense that police equipped with riot gear escorted them out of the venue after the rally concluded as a precautionary measure. A few of the journalists in Trump’s press pool wrote accounts of the frightening experience in the days that followed. 

Their fears weren’t exactly baseless. Things have gotten violent at Trump rallies before, and Trump hasn’t always called for his supporters to react peacefully to protesters. At a February rally in Las Vegas, as a protester who had interrupted Trump was being carried out, Trump stated, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.” At the same rally, he reminisced about the “old days” when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.”

Trump hasn’t tried to conceal his disdain for the media, even though it’s likely that cable network news coverage of his campaign directly contributed to his victory in the Republican primaries. He has promised to make it easier to sue journalists for libel if elected. He had a very public spat with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. He banned The Washington Post and several other news organizations from covering his events for nearly three months. 

It’s no secret that recent stories reported by mainstream news outlets about Trump’s past indiscretions have been harmful to his chances of becoming president. Journalists have reported on numerous facets of Trump’s life that he’d rather the public not know about, and poll numbers have continued to trend downward with each new revelation. But before this month, controversy did little to harm Trump’s appeal among his supporters.

It wasn’t until Oct. 7 -- two days before the second presidential debate -- that Trump’s past finally caught up to him.

The Washington Post reported on a 2005 video in which Trump vulgarly bragged to Billy Bush, then with “Access Hollywood,” about groping and trying to have sex with women.

Since then, the floodgates have opened. As each new accuser stepped forward to tell her Trump story, his support outside of his base has continued to wither away, along with his chances of winning the election.

Trump has raged that the media has refused to cover Clinton’s controversies. Clinton’s email problem from during her time as Secretary of State and questions about the Clinton Foundation, among others, have been reported by the press, but they’ve been lost in the noise of the more salacious stories swirling about Trump.

Trump’s anti-media rhetoric has continued to intensify as the election draws nearer, blaming the press for “rigging the election” in Clinton’s favor. He has planted the seed in the minds of his supporters that Clinton will steal the White House, and the media is complicit.

“Forget the press,” Donald Trump instructed his supporters at a recent rally. “Read the internet.”

While he didn’t say in particular which online news sources he found to be acceptable for his supporters’ consumption, he probably wasn’t talking about The Daily Beast, Politico, The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed.

They were all among the dozen or so media organizations that Trump blacklisted from his campaign events around the same time he banned The Washington Post.

More likely, he had Breitbart News and InfoWars in mind. Breitbart News has made no secret that it favors Trump’s candidacy; on Friday, “Trump up in all tracking polls” was one of the website’s top headlines, even as statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate has Clinton way ahead.

Breitbart’s chairman Stephen Bannon joined Trump’s campaign as its new chief in August. InfoWars’ Alex Jones -- whom Clinton has tied to Trump in a recent attack ad -- warned Thursday that a Clinton victory could result in a war in which a third of the world’s population could be killed.

Jones, a noted conspiracy theorist, has also claimed that the 9/11 attacks were a false flag and the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. But he’s hardly the only one spreading the idea that a Clinton presidency would inspire violence.

Last month, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin told an audience at the Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., that bloodshed might be needed to save America if Clinton is elected president. 

Trump’s supporters have demanded that the media tell the truth. It has. The problem is that it’s the truth Trump would rather not have told.

At the final presidential debate Wednesday, Fox News’ Chris Wallace pressed Trump on statements the latter had made about the legitimacy of the election, and asked him if he would accept the results. Trump’s response: “I will keep you in suspense.”

According to a Politico poll conducted after the final debate, 70 percent of voters want the election’s loser to accept the results. Just less than half of Trump supporters polled could be counted among them. About a quarter of Trump supporters want the losing candidate to challenge the result -- provided it’s Trump, of course.

By delegitimizing the press, Trump has pushed his supporters in search of the truth toward conspiracy theorists. But far more dangerous is his attempt to delegitimize the election process. It sets the groundwork for violent, potentially deadly protests. It strikes at the heart of our democracy.

And that’s the truth.