Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent commentator and critic of Saudi Arabia’s royal family and its regime, was last seen entering the Saudi Embassy in Turkey. There, he was put through unspeakable torture in the presence of of high Saudi officials, and then murdered, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing Turkish officials. (Saudi Arabia confirmed his death in the embassy today —Oct. 19— but says it was the result of a fight).
Despite America’s ongoing dedication to seeing the best in Saudi Arabia, what happened to Khashoggi should unfortunately shock nobody: The Saudi kingdom has been amongst the world’s worst violators of human rights for decades, and it continues to detain, and impose death sentences on, advocates of free speech, women’s rights, and other fundamental liberties.
But though the US’s willful turning of a blind eye on Saudi’s misbehavior isn’t new, there is something unsettling not just about the government’s handling of Khashoggi’s kidnapping and murder but also about its relationship with the free press. Khashoggi wasn’t the employee of any American company: He was a journalist. And journalists, to US president Donald Trump as to the Saudi government, are enemies.
Trump engaged in some enthusiastic press bashing just last night, as more gruesome details emerged of Khashoggi’s death. As he had done before, he once again praised Montana’s representative Greg Gianforte for body slamming Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs ahead of his special election, this time calling him “my guy” and saying that Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs actually helped his electoral outcome.
As the UN has warned, Trump’s antagonistic stand against the press puts reporters in danger, which means it puts democracy in danger. Behind the occasional violent expressions of a government metaphorically engaged in a battle with the press, such as in the US, and Saudi’s alleged outright murder and torture of a journalist, is the same anti-democratic mindset. Trump sees the press as an “enemy of the people,” which betrays an authoritarian view of the world in which his government, or indeed himself, constitute “the people,” and anyone who demands accountability is an antagonist.
As a fundamentally authoritarian leader, Trump wishes his enemies to disappear—he admires dictators and violent leaders because they don’t tolerate dissent. You don’t like a question, you body slam the journalist. You don’t like the journalist, you murder him—these actions and approaches, though distant on the spectrum, are of a kind, and one that belong to America’s government today.