Believe Donald Trump when he vows revenge on the news media

by Robin Abcarian

Was it just a little joke when Orange Jesus declared to Sean Hannity that, in the event of his political resurrection, he would be a dictator on “Day One”? I didn’t take it that way. You shouldn’t either.

Former President Donald Trump’s MAGA shock troops have been announcing all over the place that a second Trump term would be dedicated to punishing enemies real and imagined, especially journalists who have dared speculate about how he would set about torching the Constitution.

In the dictator’s playbook, demonizing the press is Job No. 1, and it’s something Trump is long familiar with: He not only calls news he doesn’t like “fake,” he claims he invented the term “fake news.” (No hat tip to the Nazis, I guess.) Mainstream news outlets, he’s often said, are “truly the enemy of the people.” Reporters are “scum,” “the absolute worst.”  

For years, Trump has said he wants to weaken our country’s libel laws, making it easier for him to sue outlets for negative coverage. 

Some of our Supreme Court justices have intimated that they agree and would like nothing more than to overturn the court’s unanimous 1964 ruling that made it difficult for public figures to win libel cases.

This country’s political system is flawed, not doubt about it. A presidential candidate can win the popular vote in a landslide and still lose the White House. Scheming partisans can draw maps designed to keep them in power endlessly and pass laws designed to depress voter turnout to their benefit. But haven’t we always believed, deep in our bones, that the American free press could never be silenced, that the First Amendment protects us from government censorship, and that a well-functioning Fourth Estate really is what keeps democracy safe?

You might think the motto of the Washington Post is kind of silly — “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” I find it profound.

It’s true that American reporters have been jailed many times over the years — most often for refusing to comply with court orders to identify their sources. We don’t put reporters in jail for telling the truth or for giving their opinions. But Trump would.

He and his allies have already laid the groundwork for a war on the free press in the event that he wins a second term.

Kash Patel, for example, was a onetime aide to former California Rep. Devin Nunes who rose through the ranks of the Trump administration. He eventually landed a job as chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, one of the Trump loyalists who was installed after the then-president purged Defense officials who refused to deploy military troops to quell George Floyd protests. Earlier this month, on Steve Bannon’s podcast, Patel, whom Trump is reportedly considering for CIA director in a second administration, vowed revenge on Trump critics, including reporters.

“We will go out and find the conspirators — not just in government but in the media,” he told Bannon. “We’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections. … Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out.”  

The name of the relatively obscure MAGA Republican attorney Mike Davis, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and worked for Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, has reportedly been bandied about for the position of attorney general in a second Trump administration. Davis is a walking, talking testosterone-poisoned MAGA caricature, promising to “rain hell” on Washington if he gets a Cabinet appointment.    

He has threatened to jail and deport the left-wing MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan. “I already have his spot picked out in the D.C. gulag,” Davis tweeted last month.

The latest Trumpian attack on the press comes from Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, a Yale Law graduate and member of the elite university MAGA Republican faux populist cartel. Vance was offended by a widely read Washington Post essay by the neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan that warned against a second Trump term. “Let’s stop the wishful thinking and face the stark reality,” the essay began. “There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day.”  

Kagan, who left the Republican Party over its embrace of Trump, laid out a dark vision of what would happen if Trump clinches the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination and his fellow Republicans and big-dollar donors fall into line. “Would he even obey a directive of the Supreme Court?” Kagan wrote. “Or would he instead ask how many armored divisions the chief justice has?”

“States with Democratic governors and statehouses could refuse to recognize the authority of a tyrannical federal government,” he mused. “But … Democratic governors are likely to find themselves under siege on their home turf if they try to become bastions of resistance to Trump’s tyranny.”  

Vance, getting the jump on Trump 2.0 media revenge, asked Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to investigate Kagan.

“I suspect,” wrote Vance, “that one or both of you might characterize this article as an invitation to ‘insurrection,’ a manifestation of criminal ‘conspiracy,’ or an attempt to bring about civil war.”  

I mean, what’s the difference between inciting a violent riot that left at least five people dead, pressuring a vice president to violate the Constitution, trying to strong-arm Georgia’s secretary of state into finding more Trump votes, orchestrating slates of fake electors and writing a thought experiment op-ed for a newspaper?

If your answer is “nothing,” then you just might have a promising future in a second Trump administration.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.