President Trump has designated the press as the enemy of the people; an echo off the iron walls of totalitarian states and dictatorships. In response, the senate has engaged in the surreal response of passing a resolution essentially stating that the first amendment is still valid and that the press is not the enemy of the people.
As far as why Trump has made this claim, part of the explanation lies with his psychology. He regards hyperbole as an essential component of communication and has an instinctual and unfiltered reaction to criticism, especially valid criticism. Trump, by accident or design, has also proven an able tactician when it comes to influencing people. By attacking the press this way, he poisons the well of the press for his supporters. This is a classic and effective fallacy in which an irrelevant attack is made against a source with the intent of discrediting in advance what it might claim. By labelling the press as the enemy of the people, Trump hopes that his followers will simply reject any negative claims by the press about Trump. This attack on the press also pushes them to use up resources to defend themselves, which takes away from what they can bring to bear on news stories—especially ones relating to Trump. Finally, Trump seems to clearly grasp that even people who do not fully accept his hyperbole can be influenced by it—this is a standard tactic used in rhetoric. So, while some people might not buy that the press is the enemy of the people, they might be more inclined to see the press negatively. This tactic also works for positive claims—Trump is also well known for using positive hyperbole about himself and the few people and things he likes.
While it is tempting to simply dismiss Trump’s claims as hyperbole or an outright lie, such a charge made by the President does seem to require a response. Were Trump still a third-rate reality TV show star, this claim could be dismissed as mere angry and empty ranting.
On the face of it, Trump’s claim seems false. Being critical of Trump is not the same thing as being the enemy of the people. Unless, of course, Trump is the people made manifest. Which he is not. It is fair to note that some members in the press have been unprofessional in their coverage of Trump—although it must also be noted that Trump is a paradigm of unprofessional behavior and tries very hard to goad others to joining him in the mud.
When Trump tries to give some evidence that the press is the enemy of the people, he points towards what he claims is fake news. While the press does make errors, the professional media generally gets the facts right. There is also the obvious irony in Trump accusing the media of saying untrue things, given that falsehoods are one of his basic tools.
Trump also seems to allege that the press is harmful to the people. While there are journalists, to use the term very loosely, who peddle harmful untruths (typically as part of peddling other items) most professional journalism is not harmful to the people in general. There is, to be fair, bias in the news: Fox is essentially a Trump news agency and MSNBC swings hard left. By this bias does not make Fox or MSNBC the enemy of the people. As such, Trump is wrong in his claim about the press. This leads to the matter of whether Trump’s attack on the press is harmful.
One obvious concern is that Trump is engaged in a sustained attack on an already damaged press. A large part of the damage has been inflicted by the long-term Republican campaign against the supposedly liberal bias in the media. This sustained attack had already corroded American confidence in the media, thus weakening it for Trump’s attacks. Most Republicans, however, do seem uncomfortable following Trump as he heads ever farther down the road that they built. Part of the damage has been self-inflicted, with various problems in journalism (such as Dan Rather’s career ending escapade). And, of course, the press has been weakened by their response to the economic situation created by the internet. Because of the existing vulnerabilities of the press, Trumps attack from the White House is especially worrisome.
In terms of why the press matters, I will go back to the time of Socrates. In the Apology, Socrates is on trial for corrupting the youth and various other crimes. As part of his defense, he claims that he is the gadfly to the horse that is the state. In this role, he pesters the horse when it shirks its duties. As such, Socrates claims that he has played an important role in motivating the leaders to do their jobs well—for otherwise they must endure his stings.
The press, at least in the ideal, has this role as well. It is supposed to pester and sting those in power when they are not doing as the should, so that they will do their jobs well. While those in power, such as Trump, generally prefer to be left alone to commit their misdeeds in peace, this would be bad for the people. After all, the misdeeds of the powerful generally hurt the people. By calling the press the enemy of the people, Trump hopes to swat the troublesome gadfly so he can do as he wishes. This would, obviously enough be bad. Lest anyone think that this only applies to Trump, it applies to all those in power or with hopes for power. Surely, one would think, Hillary Clinton would have preferred if the press had not brought her email server to the light of day. As such, while the press can annoy people, they are not the enemy of the people.