Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)”Who are you essential to?” yelled a New York Police Department officer on June 2 as he confronted badged Associated Press (AP) videographer Robert Bumsted and AP photographer Maye-E Wong as they sought to report on a protest. The two journalists, who were asked to leave the scene, had pointed out that members of the press were considered “essential workers” and could not be forced off the streets. Part of the encounter was recorded, and the NYPD has said it would review the incident “as soon as possible.” AP spokesperson Lauren Easton answered the officer’s question: “The role of journalists is to report the news on behalf of the public.”

Ruth Ben-GhiatRuth Ben-GhiatRuth Ben-GhiatIn today’s America, that apparently makes you a threat. The past two weeks have been marked not just by a historic wave of protests against police brutality and racism in American society, following the horrific killing of George Floyd, but also by an unprecedented level of hostility to the press. The US Press Freedom Tracker (managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation and advised by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Reporters Without Borders and others) has logged more than 380 incidents since May 26: at least 56 arrests, 78 physical attacks (50 of these by police officers), 49 instances of tear gassing and 89 journalists wounded by rubber bullets and projectiles. Protesters have also attacked journalists — a Fox News reporter was attacked and chased from a demonstration outside the White House — but the police account for the bulk of the aggression. For some journalists, this reaction has been a wake-up call. Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole has reported from international conflict zones — but her damaged cornea came from Minneapolis, when police pepper-sprayed her left eye as she covered a protest there. (The Minneapolis Police Chief, Medaria Arrandondo, has since apologized to journalists.) “I wasn’t expecting them to attack us directly,” she said to the New York Times, speaking for many. Reporters in Minneapolis dodge tear gas and rubber bulletsReporters in Minneapolis dodge tear gas and rubber bulletsReporters in Minneapolis dodge tear gas and rubber bulletsJUST WATCHEDReporters in Minneapolis dodge tear gas and rubber bulletsReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH

Reporters in Minneapolis dodge tear gas and rubber bullets 05:12That’s not surprising: making journalists as a group into public enemies is a phenomenon more typical of authoritarian societies than democracies. As a political system, authoritarianism revolves around the destruction of democratic norms of transparency and accountability, and the suppression or manipulation of information that does not support the leader’s self-serving vision of reality. The free press is always a front-line casualty. Journalistic neutrality is not a concept authoritarian states recognize. As in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, you are either with the leader, singing his praises, or seen as a political enemy, accused of organizing “witch hunts” against him. Hundreds of Turkish journalists were arrested in the crackdown that followed the July 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish President. As of May 8, according to Stockholm Center for Freedom, 88 are still in prison, another 77 await trial, and 167 others are at large or in exile, forced to flee their homeland as though they were criminals — which they are in Erdogan’s eyes. Read MoreTrump openly admires Erdogan and other autocrats, and we know that jailing journalists he sees as critical of him has always been on his mind. In 2017, the new President asked then-FBI director James Comey if it would be possible. Ruling in a still-functioning democracy, Trump lacks the control over the national media landscape his illiberal peers enjoy. So he’s worked for years to cultivate public hatred towards journalists, making it a feature of his time in office. We often hear that Trump is incompetent or lazy, but not on this issue. He’s worked with great tenacity and consistency to transform the way journalists are viewed.Journalists covering protests face assault and arrest Journalists covering protests face assault and arrest Journalists covering protests face assault and arrest Of course, hostility to the media is nothing new. The right-wing media universe had long denounced mainstream press outlets — other than Fox News — as biased and worthy of our scorn. Yet most Americans lacked the animosity that many hold toward other groups Trump has targeted (like Muslims, migrants and people of color). Trump had to up the ante to turn journalists into a hate object. He started as a candidate by making the demonization of the press an integral part of his rallies. Taunting and booing the penned-up reporters became normal behavior for his supporters before and following his election, and it was not hard to spot men or women who wore T-shirts that advocated lynching the press. Soon seeing the media as deserving of punishment became part of the pro-Trump world view. Once the protests started, and the attacks against the press began, the President drew on this history of demonizing the press. In a May 31 tweet, he blamed journalists for social unrest, lumping them in with the Antifa activists he has labeled as terrorists. “The Lamestream Media is doing anything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy,” Trump wrote, calling journalists “truly bad people with a sick agenda.” Such words hardly encourage decreased violence against the media. How does this connect to the police officers beating journalists in the streets? As a 2015 FBI report found, police officers around the nation figure in that extremist universe. It documented “active links” among current and former law enforcement officers to white supremacists and other anti-democracy forces that embrace violence as a tool to bring about political change and deal with those seen as enemies.Stelter: CNN crew arrest 'was an affront to the First Amendment'Stelter: CNN crew arrest 'was an affront to the First Amendment'Stelter: CNN crew arrest 'was an affront to the First Amendment'JUST WATCHEDStelter: CNN crew arrest ‘was an affront to the First Amendment’ReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH

Stelter: CNN crew arrest ‘was an affront to the First Amendment’ 02:13We know that Trump has exacerbated far-right extremism of all kinds since 2015, retweeting neo-Nazi memes, supporting armed militias’ invasions of state capitals and hiring extremists like immigration adviser Stephen Miller to signal his support of those who embrace racist and white supremacist ideologies.We can never discount the power of feeling legitimated by the President of the United States. In this case, it fuels the use of force against journalists, who are denied the right to do their job without risking physical harm. What we are seeing now in the streets, with so many journalists assaulted and even being placed under arrest so they look to the public like the criminals Trump suggests they are, is the result of five years’ exposure to a highly effective propaganda campaign. It has been a systemic effort to turn an entire category of Americans into an “enemy of the people” — a term with roots in authoritarian history that Trump’s administration has used to its advantage. Get our free weekly newsletter

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Americans who today support the beating of journalists and Trump’s crusades against the press might reflect on this: authoritarians may start by demonizing one group, say, migrants, or African-Americans, but they inevitably expand to others. Those who today cheer at seeing journalists led away in handcuffs don’t realize that one day they could be next.

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