When President Donald Trump tweeted that the news media “is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” the outrage on the left was palpable. That’s how dictators speak, they cried, comparing Trump to everyone from Lenin and Stalin to Mao and Mussolini. Former Obama adviser David Axelrod declared, “No other president would have described the media as ‘the enemy of the people.’ “
No, not the media, just his Republican political opponents.
Axelrod seems to have forgotten that back in 2010, his former boss let slip this telling insight into how he viewed his political adversaries: “We’re gonna punish our enemies, and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.” Few on the left compared Barack Obama to Stalin or Mao when he declared his fellow Americans who disagree with him to be “enemies.” (Obama later apologized for his choice of words.)
There was also a notable absence of outrage when, during the first Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton was asked “Which enemy are you most proud of?” and she replied, “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians? Probably the Republicans.”
Clinton didn’t compare her Republican opponents to generic “enemies,” she compared them to an actual enemy. She compared them to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a regime that took scores of U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days and is responsible for countless terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds of Americans.
It was not the first time Clinton did it. In August 2015, she compared pro-life Republicans to our terrorist enemies: “Now, extreme views about women, we expect that from some of the terrorist groups, we expect that from people who don’t want to live in the modern world, but it’s a little hard to take from Republicans who want to be the president of the United States.” She also compared Republicans to the Nazis, declaring that Trump and other GOP contenders wanted to “go and literally pull 1/8illegal immigrants3/8 out of their homes and their workplaces . . . Round them up, put them, I don’t know, in buses, boxcars, in order to take them across our border.”
I don’t recall widespread revulsion on the left when a Democratic president and Democratic nominee made these repulsive remarks. Perhaps they didn’t care, because the remarks were not targeted at the media, just Republicans.
To be clear, it was an outrage when Obama did it. It was an outrage when Clinton did it. And it is an outrage when Trump does it. The Islamic State is an enemy. Iran is an enemy. North Korea is an enemy. Russia (yes, Russia, Mr. President) is an enemy. NBC News is not an enemy.
Members of the news media may be biased. They may even be an adversary, in the political sense of the word - “the opposition party,” as Stephen K. Bannon calls them. But our political opponents are not our enemies. They are our fellow Americans who disagree with us.
Our politics is increasingly filled not simply with anger but also contempt for those we see as our opponents. We saw this contempt in Obama’s disdain for “bitter” Americans who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them ... as a way to explain their frustrations.” We see it in Trump’s crass comments about women and immigrants. We see it in the venom spewing from the left at anti-Trump rallies - from riots on Inauguration Day to Madonna standing up before a cheering crowd on the Mall and declaring “I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” And we see it in some of the press coverage of Trump, which even CBS “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson has called “hysterical.” Trump is not wrong when he complains that the press is seething with “so much anger and hatred” for him.
Trump was wrong to call reporters enemies. And yes, the demonization of those who disagree with us is a deep problem in U.S. politics. But it did not start with Trump. Perhaps it’s time for Trump’s critics - including those in the media - to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves how they are contributing to our growing culture of political contempt.
Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.