A man at a Trump rally in Minneapolis this weekend sparked outrage after a Reuters photographer spotted him wearing a shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” The shirts have been around for years, but in a climate where Trump is singling out reporters from the crowd for verbal tirades and abuse, and where his security team is choking photographers and slamming them to the ground, they take on newly disturbing dimensions.
The photo was taken by Reuters’ Jonathan Ernst at a rally in a cargo hangar at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport:
That meme, if we want to call it that, has been around since at least 2007:
It’s probably not necessary to point out that suggesting that reporters be hanged from trees until they’re dead is particularly ugly. We’re not all that far removed from the time in our history when black men and women were being publicly lynched for imaginary crimes, and it takes a special kind of nastiness to make that into a joke.
But the shirt is also a neat encapsulation of the escalating trend of violence and abuse against reporters at Trump rallies: the media is penned in and booed, jeered at, and verbally abused by the crowd, and occasionally taken to the ground in a choke-slam, as a photographer was in February by a member of the Secret Service. Meanwhile, from the stage and in countless statements, Trump encourages the crowd, calling the media liars, biased, crooked, rigged. (The irony that we learn about these statements because the press dutifully reports on them is probably lost on his supporters.)
“These people are among the most dishonest people I’ve ever met, spoken to, done business with,” he told the crowd at a Miami rally last week. “These are the most dishonest people. There has never been dishonesty, there has never been dishonesty like we’ve seen in this election. There’s never been anywhere near the media dishonesty like we’ve seen in this election. Don’t worry. They won’t spin the cameras and show the kind of massive crowds. They won’t do that.” (The press does regularly show the crowds at Trump rallies.)
His fans are picking up very clearly on his signals: abuse from Trump rally-goers has only been escalating in recent months. There’s the man who chanted “Jew S.A.!” at reporters and called them “the enemy,” or the one who was removed from a rally after reportedly staring menacingly at reporters with an object in his hand. (He later said he was protesting Trump, not the press.) MSNBC’s Katy Tur has written that she received Secret Service protection after being singled out for Trump’s abuse at a rally earlier this year. When it happened again last week, a man in the crowd started shouting that she’s also a “whore.”
This is already a uniquely dangerous time to be a reporter. Journalists all over the world are murdered with impunity for doing their work, with the Committee to Protect Journalists saying that Islamic extremist militant groups are responsible for many of the killings where the perpetrators go free (what the CPJ measures on their so-called “Impunity Index.”) They’re closely trailed by criminal groups in Mexico and throughout Latin America: drug cartels, as the Washington Post reported earlier this year, have learned that they can kill reporters with seemingly very little consequence. Wearing a press badge used to guarantee relative safety in a war zone: in 2014, the FBI began warning that ISIS sees media as particularly appealing targets for kidnapping. They have murdered a number of journalists in the past two years, usually by beheading.
The dangers aren’t just abroad: closer to home (but of course far less serious), an activist and commentator named Erin Schrode was shot with a rubber bullet by police while doing an on-camera interview at the Dakota pipeline protests not long ago. A former ABC foreign correspondent wrote recently that he found the climate for media at Trump rallies terrifying, because he recognized them as the start of something much worse:
You can simply say, “Man up,” but let me tell you about those beatings I suffered overseas. They didn’t start with a punch. They started with taunts. Which turned into shouts. Which evolved into pushing. Which morphed into punching.
All of which is to say that it’s hard not to feel a deep concern for what will happen to reporters on the ground tomorrow covering Trump rallies across the country, particularly when, in all likelihood, he loses.
Fast Company reports that the shirts have been pulled from Zazzle, one of the online stores carrying them. They’re still for sale on Teespring, though, and some nice people are very excited about ordering it.