Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Words matter. And here’s one way to gauge their impact.
This week, 12 suspicious packages were delivered to CNN and to prominent Democrats and Trump critics, including former President Barack Obama, the Clintons, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former Attorney General Eric Holder (though Holder’s package was sent to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was listed as the return address), billionaire philanthropist George Soros and actor Robert DeNiro.
What do the targets have in common? They’ve all been targeted by President Donald Trump and made into bogeymen for the far-right, often on Fox News by opinion anchors like Sean Hannity.
Here are the stats and facts:
President Trump: Attacked CNN 63 times on Twitter
President Trump has attacked CNN 63 times on Twitter alone during his administration, according to an analysis by our research team. His rallies routinely feature attacks on our news network. And it’s relevant that the President has described the press as “the enemy of the people” in speeches and tweets some 55 times since taking office, according to a search on the site FactBase.
He’s used the twisted term “fake news” more than 700 times during his 677 days in office.
Unfortunately, threats are part of the job of being a journalist these days. We can handle the trolls and bots and random haters. But we can’t ignore that President is actively encouraging hatred of the press.
Trump: Tweeted 109 attacks on Hillary Clinton since reaching presidency
Hating Hillary Clinton is part of the glue that holds the Republican coalition together, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Trump has tweeted attacks on Clinton 109 times since reaching the presidency. “Lock her up” remains a regular chant at Trump rallies, long after the election ended.
Sean Hannity: Mentioned Hillary Clinton more than 360 times since Trump inauguration
This obsession has been constantly reinforced by Fox News’ prime-time opinion anchors. According to a search of Lexis-Nexis transcripts, Hannity has mentioned Clinton more than 360 times since Trump’s inauguration and Tucker Carlson mentioned her more than 290 times.
Trump: Tweeted 137 mentions of Barack Obama since Inauguration Day
It almost goes without saying that Obama has been a constant target of Trump’s jabs, with 137 mentions on the presidential twitter feed since Inauguration Day.
Trump: Mentioned Maxine Waters 73 times
But Maxine Waters is nowhere near a national household name. In what should be a reminder to Democrats about giving ammunition for false equivalence, Waters unwisely and unacceptably called for harassment of Republicans by liberal activists. In reaction, Trump has elevated her to “the face of the Democrats,” as well as a “low I.Q. individual,” mentioning her 73 times in speeches, press statements and tweets since March of this year, according to FactBase.
Trump: Slammed John Brennan 30 times
Former CIA Director John Brennan has been an intense critic of the President, and Trump has returned fire, revoking his security clearance and slamming Brennan in 30 tweets and public comments. It’s interesting and perhaps instructive that the pipe bomb addressed to Brennan was actually sent to CNN. Brennan, however, is an MSNBC contributor. That the sender doesn’t know this easily checkable fact indicates he or she is perhaps getting news from a source other than CNN or MSNBC.
The trend continues – with hits on Eric Holder and Debbie Wasserman Schultz – but those figures are far more familiar to Fox News viewers than most Americans, given their diminished national role since leaving the Justice Department and chairmanship of the DNC, respectively. Holder, for example, has been mentioned 74 times by Hannity and Carlson’s shows since Trump’s inauguration.
Liberal billionaire and Democratic donor Soros has been a magnet for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which have been elevated by the President and Republican members of Congress in recent days, as I discussed in Tuesday’s Reality Check.
What about Robert DeNiro? The Oscar-winning actor is not like the other targets. Yes, he infamously said “F–k Trump” at an awards ceremony, but Trump has only tweeted about him twice – and that was in June. It turns out that Hannity turned his sights on DeNiro less than 10 days ago, telling his audience that DeNiro was “calling the President the devil” on the debut of Alec Baldwin’s talk show.
For the record, the offending phrase DeNiro used was “making a deal with the devil” – referring to Trump allies he believes are “going to be tainted for the rest of their lives.”
This is not only a recent incident that may indicate why DeNiro was top of mind – time and the investigation will determine that – but what’s particularly fascinating is the way that Hannity is quick to play the victim card, telling his viewers before the DeNiro clip, “I guess we’re the irredeemable, deplorable, Walmart smelling, Trump supporting, Bible hugging, loving, gun-loving, you know, clinging into God, guns and religion people. Now the devil.”
There’s no question we are in a feedback loop of anger, fear and alienation. But the folks who do most to exacerbate those divisions are often the ones quickest to play the victim. And it’s almost always done to justify their position and galvanize their support.
In this, President Trump is patient zero.
Blaming the victim
At a campaign rally in Wisconsin, Trump commented on the pipe bombs by saying, “The media also has a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories.”
He doubled down with a Thursday morning tweet: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
This is blaming the victim. It effectively passes the buck and erased his earlier well-scripted language about how “acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America.”
To be clear, the President is not directly responsible for the actions of a mad individual with apparently political animus, any more than the madman who targeted Republican congressmen playing baseball can have his actions blamed on Bernie Sanders.
But President Trump has directly attacked the people who have received these pipe bombs, in personal rather than just political terms. As President, he has an obligation to hold himself to a higher standard. His instincts unfortunately are the opposite – he is all divide and conquer.
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Words matter. Facts matter. For all the President’s rightful condemnation that “No one should carelessly compare political opponents to historical villains,” he overlooks the fact that the phrase “enemy of the people” was used by quintessential historical villains Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
That’s also why its relevant that Trump’s favorite phrase for the news media – “Fake News” – has been adopted by autocrats around the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar al- Assad and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. The issue is not that Trump is morally equivalent to those autocrats, it’s that he is giving them comfort and cover for their own often murderous actions.
The victim card reaches its apotheosis when defenders like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs instinctively insist that the pipe bombs are a false-flag operation designed to make Trump and Republicans look bad two weeks before the election.
Dangerous feedback loop
The feedback loop between hyperpartisan media and this President is unprecedented, and it is increasingly dangerous to our democracy. Its daily drumbeat ratchets up the rhetoric and undercuts our ability to reason together. It demonizes people who disagree and turns political opponents into personal enemies.
The right-wing media figures are polarizing for profit, chasing ratings among people it keeps addicted to anger. The President, however, has taken a sacred oath to uphold the US Constitution, and that comes with an obligation to try and unite the nation. He is intentionally doing the opposite. And now we are starting to reap the seeds he has sown.
This article has been updated with recent news developments.