“Step right up, don’t be bashful and feast your eyes upon the President’s Reality Show, a made for TV spectacle live from the White House. It’s meant to distract one and all with entertaining side shows and putdowns while the real story, the dismantling of America’s democratic institutions, and long held notions of fair play, continues behind the costume changes,” the carnival barker howls.

“Watch as the star of the show christens the press the “fake news media” and “the enemy of the American people.” That’s a charge that’s not only sure to amaze, but also one to serve notice that this is a president not bound by facts.”

The Washington Post has documented Trump’s running total of false or misleading statements at 4,229, or more than 7.5 per day, through early August. The realization that such an unreliable arbiter of truth is demonizing reporters, whose fundamental responsibility is to record the truth, is a plot line that’s as ridiculous as it is chilling.

Even casual observers of our national political scene know that this paladin of plutocracy has about 40% of the American electorate currently under his spell and, presumably, prepared to believe whatever he says. The president knows this all too well when he has journalists roped into virtual pens at his rallies, points in their direction and labels them “horrible, horrendous people” while attendees shout threats and insults at them.

Nobody likes being reminded that the Nazis labelled Jews “a sworn enemy of the German people” or that Lenin and Stalin used the phrase “enemy of the nation” to refer to their adversaries. Since such branding in those societies meant imprisonment, a one way ticket to a labor camp or execution, it’s no surprise that historians are now properly advising Americans that these divisive taunts are anything but harmless. In fact the demonization of the press is one of the initial steps that dictators take on the road to creating an autocratic society.

You don’t have to be a multi-level chess player to see the battle lines being drawn, either. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is closing in with indictments that are getting closer to the president and his family. At some point, it’s going to be Trump’s words against Mueller’s facts. When that happens, the president will be sure to flash his “Press is the Enemy” and “Mueller Witch Hunt” cards and insist that his “people” reject Mueller’s proof and instead believe whatever whimsy Trump dials up for them. To say we’d be on the verge of a constitutional crisis then would be the understatement of the century.

This is why the press must fight back now. Media organizations must forcefully defend their profession, demand truth from elected officials and proclaim loudly, with details, the fundamental role that a free press plays in healthy democracies. Today is not the time for trifling with the absurdities and gaslighting of Trump’s team of miscreants, book peddlers and goofball TV lawyers. Media conglomerates reaping advertising dollars off these distractions are not serving journalism or democracy well.

And we shouldn’t presume that our nation’s longstanding reliance on a free press will automatically guide us through a shameless demagogue’s made up fables to a unified resolution. Each of us must take it upon ourselves to be sure that our friends, relatives and associates know the indispensable function that a fully operating press has in a free society.

Though reporters are human and occasionally err, they are anything but the enemy of the people. The role of journalists to document and report the news is not an easy task. But it’s a fundamental exercise in any free society. It should be the civic responsibility of every citizen in America to understand the importance of serious journalism. And to know that the press is the very guardian of our democracy and our most essential fortress against the calamity of totalitarianism.