You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Revenge and Freedom From Fact

On the media in a fascist America


The crackdown could begin with a security breach at the Northwest Gate of the White House.

Imagine, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a raucous protest by left-wing groups on the streets north of Lafayette Park. The blocks surrounding the White House are cordoned off with layer after layer of fencing, due to the unrest in major cities following Trump’s reelection, but a few dozen very motivated activists barrel through the park, all the way across the inauguration parade route along the park’s southern edge, and inside the White House perimeter. Weapons are drawn, emergency plans are activated, and Trump is rushed to a deep underground bunker. Order is restored within minutes, but not before the break-in is shown live around the world, since all the major networks have live camera positions on the North Lawn. Online sleuths notice that a few of the protesters appear to be wearing press credentials. (They’re fakes, it turns out.) And in one stray live shot that gets clipped and decontextualized and shared all across pro-MAGA social media, a CBS correspondent gives a water bottle to a man screaming in agony after being pepper-sprayed. That’s all it takes for a narrative to take root on the right: “The media is complicit. They’re in on it. THEY are trying to assassinate OUR president.”

Trump feels humiliated and attacked on what is supposed to be his most triumphant day. He and his aides want what he famously promised: “Retribution.” Knowing that the Northwest Gate is a key access point for journalists, a White House aide starts a rumor that the assailants were aided by CNN and CBS News crews. Trump, who is glued to the live coverage, grunts to his chief of staff, “Get them off my lawn.” Members of his inner circle, so fed up with years of accountability journalism, and so deluded into thinking that Trump’s way is the only way, see a chance to go further and squeeze independent media off the airwaves. “Get out,” they say. “Get out of our way.”

The security breach becomes a pretext for a project that’s been on the minds of MAGA leaders for years. After all, Steve Bannon’s 2018 promise to “flood the zone with shit” was just the beginning. Trump’s “enemy of the people” proclamation gave permission to his fans to go further—to delegitimize and dehumanize journalists and make “alternative facts” the only facts. For the coup plotters of 2020, one lesson of Trump’s loss was that Trump needed to exert more control over the media in order to prevail. He needed to own the media; ergo, Truth Social, which emerged in the aftermath of January 6. The far right’s memory-holing of the attack, minimization of the violence, and rebranding of rioters as “hostages” were successful tests of MAGA media’s reality-rewriting capabilities.

Trump’s violent rhetoric emboldened his devotees. During the Biden years, pro-Trump trolls daydreamed that, once back in power, they would imprison journalists and crush opponents, and they were welcomed to say so on Elon Musk’s X. As an ex-CNN anchor, I saw it in my mentions when MAGA diehards fantasized about having me locked up at Guantánamo Bay: “Gitmo is in your future.” “You filthy nazi traitor demokkkrats belong in GITMO.” “All of you deserve to be jailed.”

Anonymous threats were accompanied by brash promises by Trump loyalists. “We will go out and find the conspirators not just in government, but in the media,” former Defense Department official Kash Patel told Bannon in 2023. “We’re going to come after you,” Patel proclaimed, “whether it’s criminally or civilly.” Bannon, overjoyed, said, “We’re absolutely dead serious.”

Imagine that the new administration uses the Northwest Gate incursion as a pretext to impose severe restrictions. Most reporters are banned from entering the White House grounds, per new Secret Service rules that cite threats to the president’s life. As Truth Social fills up with memes equating journalists with “terrorists,” networks are given 24 hours to remove their equipment. Aides claim that reporters will be able to ask questions via Zoom at virtual press conferences, but Trump refused to hold daily briefings during his first term in office, and the Zoom sessions never materialize.

Media outlets file First Amendment lawsuits seeking a return to pre–Trump II norms, but the government’s claims about security threats take precedence, and the bans remain in place. Press corps norms—like traveling with the president—melt away. Trump begins to take trips without any notice to the public at all. Several reporters who resort to staking out Andrews Air Force Base and watching for Air Force One takeoffs are arrested for trespassing.

Fox and Newsmax are allowed on the White House grounds, so officials can claim that “real” news is still represented. Fox says it will provide the other networks with live video of all presidential events and remarks. While workers revert the former press briefing room to the indoor pool it was decades ago, Trump rewards Fox with interviews and promotions—at one point doubling the Murdoch family’s market cap in a matter of weeks—and even the hosts who are most tempted to dissent are kept in check by the sudden windfall. And they know that, for the MAGA faithful, Newsmax is always one remote click away; they learned that the hard way in 2020. So they toe the line, touting specious rumors about enemies within, about writers feeding “resistance” tips to foreign governments, about liberal editors doctoring photos of Trump to make him look even older than he really is, about treasonous reporters aiding the protesters on Inauguration Day. “Remember when THEY tried to kill Trump?” becomes a rallying cry on the right, even though it didn’t happen.

Fact-checks about what did happen only embolden Trump’s fans to fight harder for punishment of the imagined co-conspirators. CBS says the doxing of its phone and computer networks becomes so intense that the newsroom can barely function for hours at a time. One night, the evening newscast starts 10 minutes late due to server glitches. A Trump spokesman is quoted calling this a “good start,” meaning the country would be better off with no evening newscast at all. Two days later, in a “swatting” incident, a caller to 911 claims there is a violent intruder inside the home of a top CBS anchor. Police arrive en masse, and, amid the chaos, an officer accidentally shoots the anchor’s wife, seriously injuring her. The same MAGA-heads on social media downplay the violence by digging up the victim’s past tweets praising Hillary Clinton; some even parrot the Trump spokesman and call the injury “a good start.”

Inspired by Trump’s words in the bunker on Inauguration Day, “get out” becomes shorthand for a groundswell of anti-media sentiment, mirroring the Trump administration’s militarized mass deportations of migrants. “If you journalists don’t love our America,” they say, “get out.” At the federal level, Trump appointees pull the levers of government to implement the president’s wishes. IRS agents commence audits of top newsroom editors. (The editors find that it’s almost impossible to prove the audits are retaliatory.) DOJ attorneys consider Espionage Act charges against adversarial reporters. FCC commissioners open probes into the conduct of broadcast station owners who don’t follow the Trump line. Republican lawmakers, themselves intimidated by the voters who are calling reporters “terrorists,” prepare a media accreditation law that would reward outlets that maintain close ties to the government. Third-party groups flood the courts with libel lawsuits against news outlets. Judges will eventually throw out most of the suits, but each case costs time and money to fight, and the twofold intent is to make the newsrooms bleed out financially, and to frighten others from pursuing the same types of stories.

The actions at the state and local level are even more disturbing. Newsrooms in Trump strongholds notice a sharp uptick in threats and harassment. Outside a pro-Trump rally in Florida, a local TV reporter is badly beaten by a group of men wearing MAGA merch, and the police response is so sluggish that observers assume they let it happen. Near a migrant detention facility in Texas, a freelance reporter is struck and killed by a security officer in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement vehicle. Was it an accident or an attack? No one knows for sure. Trump responds to the two incidents by saying the reporters “should have told the truth.” And so a new test is born. “Just tell the truth!” Some news agencies, either to appeal to pro-Trump subscribers or to fend off the goons who beat up reporters with impunity, put the word “TRUTH” in their homepage banners and marketing materials. NewsNation rebrands as “just the truth.” Breit­bart claims to be “the only truth.”

This happens at the same time that Target stores install extra-large American flags (while hiding Black History Month merchandise), and Disney theme parks promote “American pride days” (while curtailing gay pride events), and Meta’s apps add a “free speech” tab (while algorithmically deemphasizing the anti-Trump protest content that has been deemed a national security threat). Some CEOs don’t fall in line, but many do, including the heads of several major media outlets. Safety is the rationale. “The country is changing,” they say. “We need to protect you.” Some journalists feel compelled to move out of their homes. Others adopt pen names and write anonymously. Still others scramble to find new lines of work. Television shows critical of Trump are canceled. Risky assignments are nixed. Dissidents speak out on their own blogs and livestreams, but they struggle to reach a mass audience. The Committee to Protect Journalists points out that Google search results consistently rank far-right smears of independent journalists above the journalists’ actual work. Every day brings a new episode of violence or surveillance.

Outcry over the retaliatory actions is shouted down with the “fake news” smears that were popularized when Trump took office the first time. Either it’s not really happening, or, if it is, it’s justified—that’s the message on Fox. Many Americans feel that they’ve heard it all before, and they are just plain exhausted. They don’t want to have to care anymore. Trump promises they don’t have to: Trust me, he says, and don’t worry about the news or fight about politics with neighbors. “Unity” is what he purports to offer, and many take the deal. United in ignorance, they mindlessly scroll TikTok and Instagram as First Amendment rights are curtailed. They knew who they were voting for, right?

Two days after Trump’s first and so far only inauguration, in January 2017, I was privately berated by White House press secretary Sean Spicer for questioning his crowd size lies. A couple of hours later, while hosting CNN’s Reliable Sources, I asked the following questions: “Do Trump’s allies want to silence skeptics in the media? Destroy the press? Or maybe support an alternative press that presents an alternative reality that’s more favorable?”

We now know the answers. We know exactly what they want. Journalists who worked in repressive regimes recognized it, in many cases, before American journalists did. I’ll never forget an interview I conducted on CNN, one week after crowd-size-gate, with Mahir Zeynalov, an analyst and journalist living in Turkey who was smeared, sued, and deported by the Turkish government in 2014 after reporting on a corruption investigation.

“Whenever I look at what President Trump and his team are doing here in the United States, I’m like, wait a second. I have seen this movie before. It’s all familiar to us,” Zeynalov told me. “And I’m not talking about a country like Iran or China, where autocrats are crushing or strangulating the media. I’m talking about Turkey, a country that was somewhat democratic a decade ago, with a somewhat independent media, and is now turning into a state where at least one journalist is being put behind bars—since last summer, on average—every day.”

He continued: “And if there’s anyone who is saying that this cannot happen here in the United States, they are significantly underestimating how leaders, including in democratic countries, can undermine media freedom, and, with that, democracy.”

Hungary is the best example in Europe. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s coalition government has undermined media freedom and created “a climate of fear and intimidation,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a scathing report earlier this year. “Independent media outlets have closed, or changed ownership and turned pro-government overnight.”

So imagine that, in 2024, a popular but financially imperiled media company is offered a carrot and stick by a Trump confidant: Take the carrot and offload the company’s news division or accept the stick of government regulation that will drive the share price down. Imagine that someone like Musk emerges as an eager buyer. If the board doesn’t give in, they’re portrayed as siding with the “terrorists.” What will the directors do?

Maybe you think I’m overdoing it, and maybe I am. Maybe there will be no precipitating incident, no crackdown, no threat to America’s First Amendment tradition. But at a moment when the country desperately needs government oversight to stop generative AI from obliterating the media business and government support to salvage what remains of the local news economy, Trump is offering none of the above. Instead, he is vowing to investigate media outlets that challenge him. His fans have been primed for revenge and for freedom from fact. If the chill descends in 2025, no one can claim to be surprised.