Our Voices

Author and journalist Jonathan Karl on civic space protection, the free press, and Donald Trump

  • By
  • Emma Gillett

“Retribution” has been Donald Trump’s rallying cry throughout his 2024 presidential campaign. According to author and political journalist Jonathan Karl, that rhetoric is disturbingly similar to past regimes.

“The dictatorial assaults on human rights that we’ve seen throughout history and around the world are often rooted in the very language we hear from Donald Trump,” Karl said.

On February 26, Karl joined Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Chief Operating Officer Michael Schreiber to discuss his recent book, “Tired of Winning: Donald Trump and the End of the Grand Old Party.” Outlining Trump’s rise from disgraced and defeated former president to the 2024 Republican frontrunner, the book unpacks Trump’s actions over the last three years – and how those actions could impact the future.

“This is a deeply reported book about what has happened to Trump since he left the White House and what he would do, what the plans would be for a second Trump term,” Karl said.

Schreiber and Karl emphasized a topic especially relevant to Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights: civic space protection, or the ability for people to express themselves freely without fear of retaliation. As Schrieber noted, civic space encroachment often begins with attempts to even the political score against perceived grievances.

“[Trump has] made the case to his supporters that the reason he’s in such legal trouble is the weaponization of the criminal justice system. And a lot of people believe it,” Karl said. He explained that Trump’s campaign is “now rooted in the idea of retribution… [the idea that] we are going to utterly root out and annihilate the people that have done this to us. And by us, he means me.”

Trump has also used that language of retaliation and opposition with journalists. Karl commented on the former president’s disdain for reporters – a calculated move that, as Karl explained, shields him from accountability by invalidating the source.

“Trump managed to erode the credibility of journalism,” Karl said. “[He has] portrayed the press as the opposition party, as an enemy of the people.”

A longtime journalist, Karl has personal experience of being on the receiving end of Trump’s disdain. His relationship with Trump began in the 1990s when Karl was a reporter for the New York Post and continued throughout Karl’s tenure as ABC News’ Chief White House correspondent.

Driven by those interactions and a desire to document history, Karl has since written three books about Trump’s presidency. His books have had a broad impact, including influencing the work of the January 6 Select Committee.

Trump’s disregard for the law has been a recurring theme throughout Karl’s research and interview process. In one example, Karl pointed to Trump’s multiple criminal cases, including stealing classified documents from the White House. He also referenced the former president’s attempt to take over the Department of Justice and illegally overturn the 2020 election.

“Donald Trump is positioning himself as a president who is counter to the rule of law,” Karl said. “So, what are the constraints?”

Amid the warnings, Karl offered a note of hope. Referencing John F. Kennedy’s “profiles in courage,” he praised the bravery of politicians and civil servants who have refused to go along with Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.

“These were ordinary actions – people that were simply refusing to break the law. But in the context of what was happening, these were true profiles in courage.”

Karl ended the conversation with a call to action.

“As this campaign goes on, I’m hopeful that there will be more attention paid to not just what happened in the past, but who Donald Trump is now and what it would mean if he became president again.”