One week before Donald Trump’s equivocations over a series of bomb threats against political opponents and media houses, the US president had openly praised Greg Gianforte, a Montana legislator, for violently attacking a journalist from The Guardian in 2017. Earlier this week, even as he condemned the attempts to deliver suspected pipe bombs to the residences of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, liberal billionaire George Soros, former CIA director John Brennan and the offices of CNN, Trump called on the media to “stop the endless hostility” and blamed journalists for “constant negative and often times false attacks and stories”. Irony, of course, may well be turning in its grave at this hypocrisy. But even more worrying is the fact that the leader of the world’s oldest democracy cannot, even at a time when his opponents and the media are facing seemingly grave threats from unknown quarters, be resolute in his condemnation of the attacks.
An adversarial relationship with the political Opposition, and even journalists, has become par for the course in many contemporary democracies. But Trump’s vitriol against those he perceives as his enemies creates a context that has consequences that go further and deeper. He has, both during his election campaign and after becoming president, cast aspersions on the integrity of Clinton and Obama. His rhetoric is littered with barely-disguised sexism and racist slurs. He has stood by and with white supremacists and deployed his political capital for men accused of sexual assault. He has cheered from the podium as journalists and protesters have been physically assaulted at his rallies, blatantly encouraging attacks on them. Now, even when suspected pipe bombs are mailed to those he has sought to consistently direspect, he has been unable to resist the temptation to blame the media, despite the fact that a media house too is under threat.
The American and British models of representative democracy, despite their shortcomings, have served as a guide to other nations and cultures around the world. But beyond elections, it is a healthy respect for institutions that offers possibilities for the will of the people to be expressed in a stable and open manner. The most basic element of that respect is that the state has a monopoly over violence. When the US President abjures that responsibility for a cheap laugh and a bit of applause or the next electoral success, he undermines more than just himself and his office. He ends up making violence against those he disagrees with morally permissible. Those holding constitutional office have a responsibility beyond their own ego and core support base. The media, no matter how critical, is a crucial pillar of US democracy, as is the Opposition. Through what he says and also what he doesn’t, the American president undermines what his country stands for.