Culture war escalates as Trump says media glorify rioters

The letter practically screams its message:

“Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem. They are DESTROYING our cities and rioting - it’s absolute madness. President Trump has made it clear he will not tolerate their disgusting acts of violence against innocent citizens.”

That, says the mass email from the Trump-Pence campaign, is why the president is designating Antifa as a terrorist organization -- and why recipients should add their name to a list, undoubtedly to receive future fundraising pitches.

On the other side, a Washington Post editorial is headlined: “Trump’s Threats to Deploy Troops Move America Closer to Anarchy.”


We are going through many things right now: Sometimes violent protests that have scarred cities across America, a fierce debate about protecting black men from police brutality, all in the midst of a gruesome pandemic. But we are also being plunged into a full-fledged culture war.

Trump, while repeatedly expressing concern about George Floyd’s death, is seizing on the riots to militarize the response and govern as a self-described law-and-order president. Joe Biden, while expressing concern about violence, is seizing on the Minneapolis tragedy to cast himself as a racial healer taking on systemic injustice.

This will very likely become the framing for the November election: Did Trump protect the country from radical rioters -- and from the coronavirus -- and would Biden be too beholden to minority interest groups to do a better job?

Trump is taking aim, as he has so many times, at the media. He tweeted:

“If you watch Fake News @CNN or MSDNC, you would think that the killers, terrorists, arsonists, thugs, hoodlums, looters, ANTIFA & others, would be the nicest, kindest most wonderful people in the Whole Wide World. No, they are what they are - very bad for our Country!”

Now there’s plenty to criticize in the coverage, especially the over-the-top hostility toward Trump. But if there’s an anchor, correspondent or contributor who has portrayed killers, arsonists and looters as wonderful people, I haven’t seen it.

They certainly may have said it’s important to understand black anger and frustration in the wake of Floyd’s death, but I haven’t seen them justifying violence.

One who went too far, in my view, is Nicole Hannah Jones, a New York Times Magazine reporter who won a Pulitzer for the paper’s “1619” slavery project. She told CBSN that “violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man’s neck” and kills him. But, she said, “destroying property which can be replaced is not violence,” and using the same language for that is “not moral.” Okay, murder is definitely worse, but if your shop is smashed and looted or your car is torched, that, ladies and gentlemen, is violence.

If this is indeed a culture war, it has scrambled the usual battle lines. Some African-American commentators responded to Biden’s Philadelphia speech by saying that his nice-sounding words weren’t enough, that he needs to push for more concrete action.


Several religious leaders have sharply criticized Trump, including onetime presidential candidate Pat Robertson. The Episcopal bishop and the Catholic archbishop of Washington have also been sharply critical of the president’s visits to St. John’s Church and a shrine to Saint John Paul II. And George W. Bush was implicitly critical in a statement urging greater attention to the black community’s complaints.

Trump’s own Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, distanced himself by saying he did not think active-duty military should be used to quell protests (and tried to clean up a mess by dropping his denial that he knew he was accompanying the president to the church photo op near the White House).

And in an extraordinary break, Jim Mattis, who resigned as Trump’s first defense secretary, wrote in the Atlantic: 

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”

The retired general said he never dreamed that troops “would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.” Mattis commands enormous respect, and this will not be as easy to dismiss as a tell-all book from Omarosa.

As for the media’s role, my main concern is whether the 24/7 cable coverage is exacerbating the situation. There is of course no question that these protests are now a global story and need to be heavily covered.

But every day now, many cable news shows are essentially anchored or co-anchored from the streets. You see the tension build toward evening as the journalists walk with protesters in New York, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities. The question, spoken or unspoken, is whether something bad is about to happen. And there can’t really be any question that the presence of television cameras, more than a week after Floyd’s death, draws demonstrators who want to be seen, to get their message out, and in some cases to wreak havoc. And if things turn ugly, it’s “good television.” It’s driving ratings.

When there are clashes, television magnifies them. When things are peaceful, the networks often run footage of previous clashes or violence as a kind of highlight reel.

Steve Hilton, the conservative British author and Fox News contributor, tweeted that “the media are making this worse by harnessing the violence for commercial gain/ show the peaceful protests/ DO NOT give violent thugs the publicity they crave.”

We hear a lot of rhetoric about how we all have to be part of the solution. Media people have to rethink their approach as well.