“Who are the men that issue this invitation to
silence the press by violence? Who but an insolent, brawling minority, a few
noisy fanatics, who claim that their own opinions shall be the measure of
freedom for the rest of the community, and who undertake to overawe a vast,
pacific majority by threats of wanton outrage and plunder? These men are for
erecting an oligarchy of their own and riding rough-shod over the people and the
people’s rights. They claim a right to repeal the laws established by the
majority in favor of the freedom of the press. They make new laws of their own,
to which they require that the rest of the community shall submit, and, in case
of a refusal, they threaten to execute them by the ministry of a mob. There is
no tyranny or oppression exercised in any part of the world more absolute or
more frightful than that which they would establish. So far as we are
concerned, we are determined that this despotism shall neither be submitted to
nor encouraged. In whatever form it makes its appearance, we shall raise our
voice against it…. We hold that this combination of the few to govern the many
by the terror of illegal violence is as wicked and indefensible as a conspiracy
to rob on the highway. We hold it to be the duty of good citizens to protest
against it whenever and wherever it shows itself, and to resist it, if
necessary, to the death.”— Journalist-poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), “Abolition
Riots,” New York Evening Post, Aug.
8, 1836, in Power for Sanity: Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant,1829-1861, compiled and edited by William Cullen Bryant II (1994)
I suppose that we should count our blessings when
President Trump acts merely “combative, humorous and boastful” at the press conference this week described by
The New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld
Davis. After all, if he had a crowd larger than the reporters gathered in that
room—like one of those ravenous rallies he enjoys with supporters out in the
American Heartland—journalists might eventually hear something along the lines
of, “People are telling me I should have them dragged out and thrown to the
The fear of physical harm to the media is nothing
new, as I was reminded in the above quote I found recently in a kind of message
in a bottle: an American Literature textbook of the early 1950s created
especially for Catholic high schools. One of the writers included was William Cullen Bryant, whose poems
“Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfowl” I had encountered previously in a college
American lit survey course.
But I had never read any of Bryant’s nonfiction
writings—mostly produced in a half-century as owner and editor of the New York Evening Post—until I came across this
excerpt from an editorial denouncing violence perpetrated by a mob against an
Bryant—for whom the park behind the main branch of
the New York Public Library was named—wrote these words at an urgent moment in
American history, and I discovered them at a similar one today. They hurled
defiance at the proponents of entrenched privilege who hoped to intimidate the
press from espousing alternative points of view and from revealing ugly truths.
In the 1830s, the “combination of the few to govern
the many” consisted of Southern plantation owners and their smaller cadre of
Northern sympathizers. Today, it consists of a different set of “noisy
fanatics”; a lying, bullying New York real estate developer who somehow
convinced a sizable portion of the Republican Party, then the nation, to vote
for him as President; the opportunists who went along for the ride; and GOP
officeholders now terrified of taking him head-on lest they lose their jobs.
What the “combination of the few,” then and now, have
in common is the fear that aggressive reporting might bring to light unsettling
questions about accommodations to a human-rights monstrosity: a racism-based,
mercantile-enhanced slave system in antebellum America, and a nationalist authoritarian
regime in post-Communist Russia that now has an ally in the 21st-century U.S.
It is ironic indeed that Trump and the ideologue who
passes as his “brain trust,” Steve Bannon, look to Andrew Jackson as a forbear in their battle against the elites, for
it was Jacksonian Democrats, firmly entrenched in the South, who attempted to
stamp out criticism of the source of their power: cheap, ill-gotten slave
labor. To accomplish that, the Jacksonians not only passed the infamous “Gag Rule”—the most serious Congressional attempt in
American history to interfere with the right of petition—but fomented mob
violence against the abolitionist press.
The “Abolition Riot” that drew Bryant’s denunciation
was perpetrated against The Philanthropist,
a newspaper founded by anti-slavery advocate James Birney. It consisted not simply of riff-raff but also of two
of the most respectable leaders in town—Judge Jacob Burnet and banker, winemaker
and art patron Nicholas Longworth—and was observed, silently but approvingly,
by Mayor Samuel W. Davies. The mob not only tore apart the paper’s presses but
threw a part of it into the river—and when they did not find Birney at home
they turned on the African-American community, smashing up homes along the way.
Though Birney escaped physical harm that night,
another Midwestern abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy, was not so fortunate a year later. Having had three of his presses
already destroyed, he drew his gun to prevent a fourth from being wrecked in
Alton, Ill., when he was killed (an act depicted in the image accompanying this post). It was the logical culmination of a period
when slaveholders tried to suppress not just unrest among the slaves they
directly controlled but dissent among the whites beyond their ken.
As bad as abolitionist editors had it, they did not
have to contend with instant communications from a President who could summon
mobs to do his bidding. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot
somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?” candidate Donald Trump said in January
2016. “It’s, like, incredible.”
Since Trump, despite his reputation from The Apprentice, has had difficulty
firing people himself, one doubts he would
have the nerve to fire a gun against
an irate, righteous citizen. Instead, he would get others to do it—like a mob,
whose citizens collectively surrender their consciences.
The President has never come right out and commanded
mayhem and murder toward his critics, mind you. But he does so much through a
conspiratorial nod and smirk between him and his followers.
Sometimes it might involve a calculated silence,
followed by approving verbiage from this least subtle of politicians. Montana
Congressman Greg Gianforte, for
instance, slammed Guardian reporter
Ben Jacobs to the ground, after being asked a question he didn’t like about the
GOP healthcare bill. A tape of the attack proved definitively that Gianforte
committed the assault, then lied to police about it. Yet supporters
awarded him a win at the polls.
Not only did Trump never condemn the assault, but he
strongly implied an endorsement of
it. “I’ll tell you what, this man has fought — in more ways than one — for your
state,” Trump said. “He has fought for your state. Greg Gianforte. He is a
fighter and a winner.”
Even more striking if Trump’s consistent, odd
refusal to condemn Russian President Vladimir. "They said, you know, he's
killed reporters. I'd never kill them," Trump said at one rally in Grand
Rapids, Mich. "But I do hate them. Some of them are such lying, disgusting
Please read that statement again. They said, you know, he’s killed reporters.
Yes, dozens of them, according to a Scott Simon report on NPR back in April. Yet the President’s tone suggests
only that the Russian leader is a bit…excitable. Sort of like a college frat
boy who gets into a drunken scrape with the police.
Instead, his real
scorn is reserved for reporters—people who doubtless never feared until now,
unlike those in Russia, that their lives are at stake with every critical word
that they write about a President.
Even before the 2016 campaign, Trump would routinely
threaten reporters and editors with litigation. Since then, he has escalated to
insults and denunciations of the media for spreading “fake news” and, more
seriously, for being the “enemy of the people,” an epithet once routinely
employed under Josef Stalin.
That has been enough to incite his followers. Shirts
have been sold at Trump rallies reading "Rope, Tree, Journalist: Some
assembly required." NBC’s Katy Tur has described the atmosphere at the Grand Rapids rally this way: “The arena is
packed, and it's a basketball stadium so the seats go very steep. The media,
there was like 30, 40 people surrounded on all sides. And Donald Trump leaves,
and so does the Secret Service, and suddenly it's like anybody can do anything
Reporters like Tur who cover Trump rallies now must be
prepared to be verbally harassed, beaten and thrown to the ground—in at least
one instance, by a Trump staffer (in 2016, by hideous campaign operative Corey Lewandowski—who now, irony of
ironies, makes money off the very group he attempted to physically manhandle,
as a political commentator for CNN).
Even away from such stages, the poisonous rhetoric
and helpful little hints have had their effect. Last month, a California man termed
Boston Globe employees the “enemy of
the people” in the course of threatening to shoot them. (Fortunately,
he was arrested.)
After staffers at Annapolis, Maryland’s Capital Gazette were killed in June,
Trump issued a statement saying that “journalists, like all Americans, should
be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their job.” But
it came with the same dry, perfunctory tones with which he’d delivered his sort-of
apology for his Access Hollywood tape
about groping women, or his walk-back criticism of white separationists in
Charlottesville. Before long, he was back to doing and saying what came
The hypocrisy of Trump’s braying about how this
group has done him wrong defies description. All of this comes from a real
estate developer who thrived on publicity, even of a critical sort. Reporters
he could not use to inflate his reputation could be turned into his foils. Far
from being enemies of him, let alone “the people,” journalists should be on his
permanent Christmas mailing list.
Instead of squelching opposition to slavery, the
attempt to intimidate 1830’s press critics like Birney and Lovejoy only
hastened a realignment of party politics, with Northerners such as Lincoln’s
future Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, turning to anti-slavery parties.
Trump is pushing 21st century American politics toward a similar
The President has made much ado about his scorn
toward the “lying, disgusting” people who chronicle what he says and does. But
even at this still-early stage of his administration, more and more Americans
are realizing that he just professes to despise the same qualities he finds
every morning in his own mirror.