By far and away, the most common refrain I’ve heard from politically attuned friends since the 2020 election is, “Thank God Donald Trump is gone. Beaten. The loser lost. It is so nice to be able to watch the news without having to listen to him scream and rant.” Often, this sentiment is followed up with, “I hope nobody in the media covers him again. All it does is give him power.”
For a little while, perhaps, that second bit may have been true. Trump’s defeat was resounding, and Republican election officials in state after state refused to aid in his attempts to overthrow the results. The conservative Supreme Court wanted no part of his nonsense, and his crack legal team — led by a befuddled Rudy Giuliani oozing black ichor from his head like Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element — went from pillar to post building a profoundly credible case for their own disbarment. QAnon adherents wobbled in uncertainty after their vast and sundry prophesies failed to follow through.
There was no there, there… and after the nightmare of January 6, when maddened Trump supporters attacked the Capitol Building like murder hornets sacking a honeybee hive, there were a few days when virtually the entire Republican establishment rose up in revulsion against what they had seen, and only barely escaped. No lesser lights than Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham laid the whole fiasco at Trump’s feet. The Trump tide, it seemed, had washed up to its high point, and was now rolling back into the sea.
That was then, as they say, and this is now. We have to start paying attention to Trump again.
It gives me no joy to take this position. Covering Donald Trump — from his racist escalator ride in 2015 to a piece on his still-deadly COVID politics I wrote back in August — was like walking on hot shards of glass in bare feet every single day. It damaged my health and assassinated my sleep. Once the banshee scream of Trump’s front-burner position subsided, my body started to heal in tangible ways from the ceaseless Trump-instigated anxiety and stress.
I was a whole new man, and altogether happy to never type the words “Donald Trump” again if it could possibly be avoided… but the last several weeks have given me deep pause.
The January 6 insurrection never ended, you see, and has since made gains I would have thought impossible on January 7. The GOP’s feint toward liberation from Trump lasted about as long as it takes to boil an egg, and today, virtually the entire apparatus of the party — federal, state and local — is his unquestioned domain.
Ask yourself: Aside from Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, name for me one Republican you can absolutely count on to defy Trump and his legions when the chips are down? Please forward all answers to P.O. Box 0, There Ain’t None, NH, 00000. It’s not like those two are any kind of prize, either; both voted against the House bill to fund the government last Tuesday, because Republicans gonna Republican no matter how often they get invited onto MSNBC. Whatever else they are, they are not your friends, and that is the state of play within the Party of Trump.
The poison runs far deeper than simply within a pack of rare-air, integrity-bereft federal Republicans. Robert Kagan of The Washington Post explains:
The warning signs may be obscured by the distractions of politics, the pandemic, the economy and global crises, and by wishful thinking and denial. But about these things there should be no doubt:
First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.
Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.
If we take Kagan’s prediction that Trump will run again as sound — and there is no reason not to at least take it seriously — it is prima facie evidence for why ignoring Trump going forward is folly. The days of Rudy’s oozing head are over, and his current people are entirely serious this time around. Add to that the following data points:
* 148 bills have been introduced in 36 states attempting to dislodge traditional election infrastructure and replace it with partisans — often GOP-controlled legislatures — whose loyalty to Trump is absolute;
* Barriers are being erected in multiple states making it far harder to vote;
* The Arizona “audit” may have ended in a blizzard of failure and disgrace, but the people who push it remain undaunted, and seek to duplicate it in multiple other states. Trump himself went to Georgia on Sunday and declared the audit proved he had won. This will be absorbed by every person within the Trump media bubble, it was Gospel by breakfast, and there is nothing the non-Trump media can do about it;
* A University of Chicago survey finds that 47 million people believe Joe Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, and 21 million of those support returning Trump to office through “the use of force” (i.e., violence);
* These Trump-radicalized Americans are making no bones about their motives, and have been airing declarations of war all over social media. In Trump-heavy districts, some are hanging black flags outside their homes, a signal to fellow partisans that they support the violent overthrow of the government. Combine these people with the far-right organizations like the Proud Boys and One Percenters, who have already proven their taste for political street violence;
* A pro-Trump lawyer named John Eastman drafted a memo before January 6 that was nothing more or less than a blueprint for a coup d’état. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Peril, Vice President Mike Pence very nearly followed through with that blueprint on January 6, and only refrained when fellow Indianan Dan Quayle convinced him he lacked the power to do so. No democracy is healthy if it hinges on someone like Quayle hauling someone like Pence back from the abyss.
“It is ironic, given the prevalence of the word ‘dogwhistle’ in popular discourse to refer to things that everyone can actually hear, but there is something about the specific pitch of the threat that perhaps strains the capacity of some institutions to process,” The Nation’s Tim Murphy wrote upon contemplating the Eastman memo. “They’re not programmed to take on problems like this — it disturbs the comfortable equilibrium that defines a lot of political media…. But what happened at the close of Trump’s presidency, and seems likely to happen again if we continue mostly ignoring it, is an existential problem. There’s no equilibrium here.”
Wishful thinking — the stubborn faith that someone will do something to put a stop to all this — is a comfort we can no longer afford. If the first 21 years of this doomed and damaged century have proven anything, it is that the institutions we expect will hold everything together are in fact made of cheap rubber, malleable to the point of splitting and undermined by the profit motive within electoral politics. For every Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there are a hundred Joe Manchins who will vote against feeding starving babies in their own back yard if it keeps the coal stacks huffing smoke into a broken sky.
Pretending the elections in 2022 and 2024 depend on what Biden can get done (while almost completely ignoring McConnell’s electoral terrorism) is a favorite game of the elite political pundit class. It is also a constitutional suicide pact amid the disinformation campaigns waged by Fox, Newsmax, Breitbart and OANN.
That pro-Trump media is a fearsome engine in itself, and has accelerated its fascist dialog with gusto. Tucker Carlson of Fox News has repeatedly championed the conspiracy theory of “replacement,” the idea that Democrats want to “replace” white people with “foreigners.” The white power marchers in Charlottesville were heard chanting, “You (or “Jews”) will not replace us!” while carrying torches. It is an idea that has existed for a very long time.
This “replacement” rhetoric earned Carlson the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League, which he blew right past last week when he said, “In political terms, this policy is called ‘the great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries. They brag about it all the time, but if you dare to say it’s happening, they will scream at you with maximum hysteria.”
Those who think it is non-Trumpist journalists who empower Trump by covering him profoundly misunderstand the dynamic at play. First of all, neither Trump nor his people are reading Truthout or watching MSNBC. They flee the likes of us like thwarted vampires, and there’s no fixing that between now and ballot time. Like ants in angry amber, his base is buried in its own wholly contained atmosphere of fear, conspiracy theory and rage. If anything, our coverage has kept millions from falling over into his corner.
It is profoundly ugly and uncomfortable to deal with on a daily basis, but coverage of Trump’s antics going forward will no longer feed the machine the way it did in the past. Perhaps if the major networks had not given his fascist rants all that free air time in 2016, this thing could have been contained, but that is blood under the bridge. How the wolf got in the house is far less important right now than knowing exactly what the wolf is up to. We can have a reckoning over causality once the menace is on the other side of the door.
I dread it, more than I can adequately explain. The trick will be to approach this with critical consciousness. Don’t listen to what Trump bleats during his daily diatribes, and if you’re a media type, don’t spread it. No more “Can you believe he said this?!” stories, please. No more free wall-to-wall coverage of his “Yay fascism!” rallies, either. Instead, watch what he does, and more importantly, watch what his people do.
This thing isn’t coming; it’s here. Waiting for an indictment from Georgia or New York State to take the role of the deus ex machina in this democratic passion play is not sufficient, because that very well may not happen, or could come too late. After a nice little break, it’s time to dive back into the dumpster fire. This is not a drill.