Trump, the "lying press" and the Nazis: Attacking the media has a history

Donald Trump's attacks on "the enemy of the people" aren't random outbursts. They have a long and troubling history

Published June 9, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest outside the US Embassy in London, November 9, 2016.   (Getty/Ben Stansall)
A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest outside the US Embassy in London, November 9, 2016. (Getty/Ben Stansall)

This article is excerpted from the essay collection "States of Exclusion: A New Wave of Fascism," available now from the author's website.

At an election rally in Cleveland in October 2016, two supporters of Donald Trump were captured on video shouting, “Lügenpresse!” What was going on? Why would people who are looking to Trump to “Make America Great Again,” be shouting a German word at one of his events? And what did it mean? The “lying press” — an idea at the heart not only of Trump’s campaign and presidency, but of his entire worldview.

The news media, Trump complains, treats him unfairly. It does not report all the positive news about his campaign and then his presidency. Instead, he insists, it lies to the public, publishing what he calls “fake news.” Within the confines of Trump’s community of supporters, stories critical of Trump are seen as lies, as phony left-wing propaganda. They’re not to be believed. As it turns out, the use of the term Lügenpresse happens to be quite illuminating. It sheds light on a connection between Trump’s political approach and that of Hitler in the 1930s, when one also heard that word used quite often.

The term Lügenpresse has its origins in Germany during the First World War. Initially intended to counter allied propaganda campaigns (a good deal of which we now know to have actually been accurate) the Nazis used it to attack hostile media. And considering the central role of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s worldview, it was a particularly effective weapon. The idea of a Jewish-dominated press stretched back decades. By the 1920s it was all but an unspoken assumption within German anti-Semitic circles. So now, if the press was critical of the Nazis, the explanation was clear: the Jews. And since, according to Hitler, Jews were fundamental enemies of Germany, the press, too, was the enemy of the people.

As with so much of Nazi propaganda, the description of an opposition press based on lies was a classic case of projection. Hitler based his whole approach to politics on lies—something he made no secret of, having described his strategy of the “Big Lie” in his memoir, "Mein Kampf." Hitler lied to officials about his party’s use of violence, he lied about his own past, he lied to foreign leaders about his intentions, and, of course, his whole understanding of the world was based on the lie of a global Jewish conspiracy. Truth would never get in the way of Hitler’s goals.

Trump is also a man who has never let the truth get in the way of what he wants to say and who projects his own dishonest nature onto others. And like Hitler, he’s made no secret of the fact that he lies — bragging to a group of Republican donors that he simply made up numbers to argue about trade policy with the Canadian prime minister. 

Trump launched his political career, in fact, on a lie: the story that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and was also possibly a Muslim. And since assuming the presidency his dishonesty has reached breathtaking proportions. In his first 828 days in office, Trump has delivered 10,111 false or misleading claims according to the fact-checkers at the Washington Post. He needed 601 days to reach 5,000, but only 226 to make it to 10,000 — a feat that required an eye-popping average of 23 lies per day. And the topics about which he lies span the spectrum:

He’s boasted that his inauguration crowd was the largest ever (despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary).

He regularly tells crowds that women have their babies “executed” after they’re born.

He’s talked about George Soros financing the "caravans" coming to the United States in order to destroy it.

He frequently refers to nonexistent voter fraud, including the claim that between three million and five million people voted illegally in 2016, thus costing him the popular vote.

He confidently asserted that President Obama wiretapped his office in Trump Tower.

He said 3,000 people did not die in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricanes that hit the island.

And regardless of how often and how definitively they’ve been revealed as lies, he continues to repeat them, over and over.

Once in power, Hitler continued his campaign against the Lùgenpresse. On the one hand, he had the newspapers of his main political opposition — the Communists and Socialists — forcibly shut down. In doing so, the police arrested many of the editors and sent them to concentration camps. Beyond purging the press of “Jewish and Marxist” journalists, the Nazis often took over the facilities and equipment in order to publish their own papers, and with them, their own version of reality.

Early on this involved an effort to counter foreign papers that reported on the violence and persecution already taking place under the new Hitler government. The regime offered instead its own alternative reality, calling such criticisms and stories “atrocity propaganda.” In addition to the Nazi media, Germany’s middle-class press also stepped forward to publicly condemn such “lies.” By October 1933, the regime officially excluded “non-Aryans” from journalism. The same law also called for editors to refrain from printing anything “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home.” The news media was fully in Nazi hands.

Though he has not taken such extreme steps yet, Trump has made clear his desire to restrict and ultimately silence critical media sources. One of the more common themes of his Twitter activity involve attacks on various news outlets as “fake.” He repeatedly calls out and attacks journalists for critical reports or for not complimenting him. He’s belittled and denigrated reporters such as Katy Tur, Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski, referred to Don Lemon as “the dumbest man on television,” called CNN a network of liars, and actually ordered one CNN correspondent out of the White House for asking a question he didn’t like.

Responding to reports that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a “moron,” Trump said: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. ... And people should look into it.”

Trump has suggested concrete measures that he believes should be taken against purveyors of lies. In October 2017, he proposed that NBC should have its broadcasting license revoked for printing a story about Trump’s desire to dramatically increase the country’s nuclear arsenal. (Networks do not have broadcasting licenses.)

In an even more brazen move, the Justice Department told Time Warner in November 2017 that it would not receive approval for its planned merger with AT&T unless it sold off CNN, a network that’s been a frequent target of Trump’s ire. The message is clear. If a media company wants fair treatment when it comes to regulations or approval of prospective business deals, it ought to think twice before airing anything critical of the President. And this is not the only danger of a government that rejects the truth and peddles in lies.

When a regime camouflages its true actions and intentions in lies and euphemisms, it can provide cover for the most horrifying measures. The Holocaust is a perfect example. Instead of deportations to death camps in German-occupied Poland, the Nazi government spoke of "relocations" and "work camps" in the east. After years of relentless Nazi efforts to reshape reality, cast doubt on criticism, and associate criticism with enemy outsiders, what were Germans to make of stories about harsh government actions against Jews?

For those who did not want to know the truth of what was really happening to their former neighbors and fellow citizens, they could choose to believe the rhetoric. How many people would want to believe that their own government was systematically murdering millions of unarmed men, women and children in their name? It was much easier on their conscience to choose a more palatable reality and therefore that much easier to justify doing nothing to stop it. After all, who could really say what was happening?

At its heart, the use of "fake news" by the Trump Administration is illiberal, anti-democratic, and in fact, authoritarian. Dismissal of critical news as “fake” implies that criticism of the president is illegitimate, inappropriate and even unpatriotic. It serves to confuse. The public is left to wonder: what is true and what is false? Should we believe reports of ICE agents, for example, violently separating mothers from children and holding those children in concentration camps for months; or the targeting of activists for deportation instead of the "hardened criminals" the government claims are its real targets? Or should we believe, instead, the government’s denial and condemnation of such reports as lies? Should we act to resist, or wait for further evidence? Trump’s attempts to obliterate reasonable understanding of truth give rise to such confusion and hesitation. And hesitation allows him time to consolidate his power.

Assaults on the truth also serve to divide. On one side they pit those who choose to believe the president and therefore do not accept the reality of any news outlets critical of him. On the other side are those who understand the role of journalism in a democracy and can discern true stories from false. Those within the boundaries of the Trump media world see those fake news" purveyors — and their consumers — as hindering the president and actively working against him. They are, as Donald Trump himself so shockingly asserted in February of 2017, “the enemy of the American people.” Should anyone be surprised then when a man calls into CNN to deliver racist diatribes and threatens to “gun you all down?” Or that someone would actually deliver on such threats? Should anyone have been surprised when a gunman opened fire in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018?

The problem with such rhetoric — especially from the highest authority in the country — is that people will act on it. We’ve seen this, too, in the multiple assassination attempts made against political figures who’ve been the frequent target of Trump’s lies — from George Soros to Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton — something all but unheard of in American history. And the more Trump continues to lie, the more such attempts we’ll continue to see. After all, enemies are not debated. Enemies are not reasoned with. One doesn’t compromise with an enemy. An enemy is confronted, is combatted, is neutralized, and ultimately, an enemy is destroyed. The point at which politics shifts from truth to lies, from opponents to enemies, is the point at which democracy dies.

By Richard E. Frankel

Richard E. Frankel is associate professor of modern German history and the Richard G. Neiheisel Professor in European History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is the author of "Bismarck’s Shadow: The Cult of Leadership and the Transformation of the German Right, 1898-1945" and, most recently, "States of Exclusion: A New Wave of Fascism."

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