Trump calls Biden "an enemy of the state." Media, as usual, looks the other way

Trump keeps threatening violence — and media keeps giving jobs to his stooges. What's wrong with this picture?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 14, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Former president Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally to support local candidates on September 03, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Former president Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally to support local candidates on September 03, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

During a speech in Pennsylvania earlier this month, Donald Trump made more implicit threats against President Biden, accusing him of being "an enemy of the state." This is part of Trump's larger pattern of encouraging violence against his political opponents. To call someone an enemy of the state is to mark them as a traitor. Historically the punishment for treason has been life imprisonment or death. 

Like other demagogues and authoritarian leaders, Trump has a deep and almost erotic attraction to violence. In that same speech, he incited his followers to insurrection, terrorism and other forms of political violence against Democrats, the United States government and other designated enemies. Trump described Biden's recent much-praised speech in Philadelphia as "the most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president, vilifying 75 million citizens … as threats to democracy and as enemies of the state. He's an enemy of the state,"

Trump continued by claiming that the FBI and the Justice Department, which are investigating him for a number of possible crimes, "have become vicious monsters, controlled by radical left scoundrels, lawyers and the media, who tell them what to do." He once again claimed to be the "victim" of an imaginary deep-state conspiracy:

There could be no more vivid example of the very real threats of American freedom than just a few weeks ago you saw when we witnessed one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history.... The shameful raid and breaking of my home, Mar-a-Lago, was a travesty of justice.

Throughout Trump's incendiary speech, his followers and cultists roared in approval. The entire event was reminiscent of the 1939 America First rally held at Madison Square Garden in support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Trump's threats of violence are usually not delivered through code words, dog whistles or stochastic terrorism: They are explicit threats or promises. In his important new book "American Midnight," Adam Hochschild connects the neofascist and authoritarian currents of the Age of Trump to its antecedents:

The toxic currents of racism, nativism, Red-baiting, and contempt for the rule of law have long flowed though American life. People of my generation have seen them erupt in McCarthyism, in the rocks and insults hurled at Black children entering previously all-white schools, and in the demagoguery of politicians like Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Donald Trump….  America's version of democracy is far from perfect, and every generation or two we learn anew just how fragile it can be. Almost all of the tensions that roiled the country during and after the First World War still linger today.… To keep these dark forces from overwhelming American society once again will require a lot from us.

Trump's threats against the current president fit into a larger pattern of violent fantasies and violent actions. The most obvious example was of course his coup attempt of January 2021. As confirmed by the House Jan. 6 committee hearings and other investigations and reporting, Trump hoped and intended to go to the Capitol himself on that day of carnage, perhaps to enter the chamber and declare himself as permanent president or American Caesar. In a recent interview, Trump claimed that he was offering financial support to some Jan. 6 insurrectionists, describing them as "heroes" and victims of persecution. He has suggested on several occasions that if he becomes president again he will pardon his followers who participated in the Capitol attack.

Trump continues to act as de facto commander of a seditious criminal conspiracy and mass movement dedicated to overthrowing American democracy. In a recent column for the Washington Post, Thomas Ricks argued that while the risk of civil war may have declined, the danger of political violence remains grave: 

Five years ago, I began to worry about a new American civil war breaking out. Despite a recent spate of books and columns that warn such a conflict may be approaching, I am less concerned by that prospect now.

Back then, I wrote in a series of articles and online discussions for Foreign Policy that I expected to see widespread political violence accompanied by efforts in some states to undermine the authority and abilities of the federal government. At an annual lunch of national security experts in Austin, I posed the question of possible civil war and got a consensus of about a one-third chance of such a situation breaking.

Specifically, I worried that there would be a spate of assassination attempts against politicians and judges. I thought we might see courthouses and other federal buildings bombed. I also expected that in some states, right-wing organizations, heavily influenced by white nationalism, would hold conventions to discuss how to defy enforcement of federal laws they disliked, such as those dealing with voting rights. Some governors might vow to fire any state employee complying with unwanted federal orders. And I thought it likely that "nullification juries" would start cropping up, refusing to convict right-wingers committing mayhem, such as attacking election officials, no matter what evidence there was.

We still may see such catastrophes, of course. Our country remains deeply divided. We have a Supreme Court packed with reactionaries. Many right-wingers appear comfortable with threatening violence if things don't go their way, and a large minority of the members of Congress seems unconcerned with such talk. I continue to worry especially about political assassinations, because all that takes is one deranged person and a gun — and our country unfortunately has many of both.

As Media Matters has exhaustively documented, Republican propagandists continue to incite acts of violence against the government and "liberal institutions". National security and law enforcement experts continue to warn that the Republican-fascist movement has been inspired and inflamed by the events of Jan. 6 and that the country faces a serious threat of sustained right-wing insurgency.

As usual, the mainstream news media has largely remained silent in the face of these threats. Entrenched habits of many years are difficult to break. If Trump's violent threats and those made (and followed through on) by his followers and acolytes are covered at all, that happens only episodically, not as part of a sustained program of pro-democracy journalism. 

Caitlin Petre elaborated on this in an essay last January at the American Prospect:

The U.S. press has come under fire lately for failing to take seriously the increasingly authoritarian flavor of right-wing politics — and its attendant threats to our democracy. Much of the furor is justified: When one of the two major political parties is becoming fundamentally anti-democratic, journalists' long-standing affinity for "balance" inevitably benefits the would-be autocrats. And if journalists are doing key parts of their job badly, we can (and should) condemn that, loudly.

But we also would do well to think about why that might be the case. What's driving the media's current failures?

Many critics point the finger at traditional journalistic norms, and with good reason: Some of the problems are baked into the professional values and habits of U.S. journalism. Newsroom ethnographers as far back as the 1970s observed that journalists wrote with two aims in mind: to avoid being accused of political bias and to impress other journalists. Both tendencies persist today. Skittishness about being seen as biased resulted in the both-sidesism that too often characterized coverage of Trump….

There's no doubt journalism is due — frankly, overdue — for a reckoning about how its norms, values, and practices could better support the diverse democratic public it purports to serve. But relentless production pressures, enforced by traffic metrics, make it all too tempting to cling to some of the profession's worst habits. In order for journalism to take the kind of "pro-democracy" direction that many press critics are calling for, working conditions in the industry must improve.

At this juncture, it appears that many in the media have made the irresponsible decision not to cover Trump's recent speeches or his threats of violence, believing that highlighting the danger may encourage it or make it worse. But forest fires spread when they are ignored. Serial murderers do not stop until they are apprehended or otherwise neutralized. The same logic applies here.

As expected, the mainstream news media has also enlisted many former members of the Trump regime, often featuring them as guest experts and columnists. In some cases, as with CNN, editorial policies have been changed to appear more "balanced" and "fair" toward Trumpists and the Republican fascists, presenting their odious views as alternative perspectives worthy of consideration in the marketplace of ideas.

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Decisions like that go beyond self-serving cowardice. Prominent forces within the mainstream news media are eager to plan for Trump and the Republican fascists' return to power, in the name of access, influence, fame, and profit.

*  *  *

At its core, America's democracy crisis revolves around basic questions of equality, fairness and the rule of law. What should be done about Donald Trump, a man who leads a fascist movement that is attempting to end democracy? What does justice look like in a time of such extraordinary existential danger?

Our democracy crisis revolves around basic questions: What should be done about a former American president who leads a fascist movement? What does justice look like when faced with such existential danger?

There are two dueling camps. One side believes that Donald Trump and his fellow criminals, from the highest level down to the rank and file, should be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent allowed by the law. Democracy and the rule of law demand it. No one is above the law, and that core principle of democracy certainly applies to a former president who has committed numerous crimes, including an actual coup attempt. 

The other side, which I argue is clearly misguided and delusional, believes it is in the country's best interests not to prosecute Trump because that will somehow encourage "national healing" and permit Americans to "move on." The Trumpist fever will finally break, and America's neofascist nightmare will magically come to an end. In a New York Times column, Jamelle Bouie offers some historical context:

The arguments against prosecuting Trump don't just ignore or discount the current state of the Republican Party and the actually existing status quo in the United States, they also ignore the crucial fact that this country has experience with exactly this kind of surrender in the face of political criminality.

National politics in the 1870s was consumed with the question of how much to respond to vigilante lawlessness, discrimination and political violence in the postwar South. Northern opponents of federal and congressional intervention made familiar arguments.

If Republicans, The New York Times argued in 1874, "set aside the necessity of direct authority from the Constitution" to pursue their aims in the South and elsewhere, could they then "expect the Democrats, if they should gain the power, to let the Constitution prevent them from helping their ancient and present friends?"

The better approach, The Times said in an earlier editorial, was to let time do its work. "The law has clothed the colored man with all the attributes of citizenship. It has secured him equality before the law, and invested him with the ballot." But here, wrote the editors, "the province of law will end. All else must be left to the operation of causes more potent than law, and wholly beyond its reach." His old oppressors in the South, they added, "rest their only hope of party success upon their ability to obtain his goodwill."

To act affirmatively would create unrest. Instead, the country should let politics and time do their work. The problems would resolve themselves, and Americans would enjoy a measure of social peace as a result.

That was not even close to what happened in reality, as Bouie observes. "In the face of lawlessness, inaction led to impunity," resulting in "a successful movement to turn back the clock on progress as far as possible." That historical lesson should teach us, Bouie argues, "that there is a clear point at which we must act in the face of corruption, lawlessness and contempt for the very foundations of democratic society."

In his prescient 1998 book, "Achieving Our Country," philosopher Richard Rorty predicted many aspects of our current struggle against fascism and authoritarianism with eerie accuracy, locating that struggle within a larger historical context of politics, power, struggle, progress, backlash and change:

The super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians of both the Left and the Right to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere — to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world's population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events … the super-rich will have little to fear....

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

If Donald Trump were being treated like any other American, rather than as some kind of king or emperor possessed of almost mystical privilege, he would have been prosecuted, tried, and quite likely convicted for his crimes some years ago. If this were a healthy democracy, no person, group or movement would ever be considered above the law. When such things become normalized, as history teaches us over and over, democracy dies.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Democrats Donald Trump Fascism Jan. 6 Joe Biden Media Political Violence Republicans