American democracy is teetering increasingly close to the abyss as the Republican Party embraces cult-like conspiracies and races to shred the electoral process, now in the form of undemocratic ballot “audits.” Against that dark backdrop, the press continues to play a treacherous game by refusing to acknowledge the danger in play, and insisting that its job is to merely record Trump’s game of demolition.
Even in the wake of the newest revelations of how Trump and his team aggressively tried to engineer a coup by invalidating millions of votes last year, he’s still being normalized in the day-to-day coverage, as the press eagerly awaits his return to the campaign trail. (“When Will Trump Answer the Big 2024 Question?” the New York Times asked.)
There’s nothing Trump could do at this point that would invalidate him in the eyes of the political press, and that includes him shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
Annoyed by President Joe Biden’s “boring” administration, journalists seem eager for the chaos and clicks that Trump creates — no defeated candidate has ever been showered with as much attention as he has.
Recall that it was Trump’s deliberate failure to protect the public from Covid-19 that led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths — according to a study this year, which was ignored by the news media. All of that has been flushed down the memory hole. That deadly baggage simply isn’t part of the Trump political coverage today.
He remains a captivating topic who provides endless angles of intrigue and who is treated as a looming star of American politics. Forget about that coup stuff; Trump’s lawless, violent mob that rampaged inside the U.S. Capitol for hours, knocking officers unconscious and destroying offices of Democratic members. Whatever shock Trump’s deadly insurrection initially generated among Beltway journalists has since worn off.
We saw that last week with the emergence of the Trump White House’s coup memo and much of the shoulder-shrugging coverage.
“The ABC, CBS, and NBC morning and evening news broadcasts have all ignored the revelation that one of then-President Donald Trump’s lawyers authored a memo laying out how Trump could effectively pull off a coup,” noted Matt Gertz at Media Matters. (The Times also refused to cover the stunning memo.)
A smoking gun document represented a chilling blueprint that provided step-by-step instructions to overthrow an election. Richard Nixon resigned from office for doing far less than was outlined in the memo. Yet leading news outlets gave the Trump story a pass — some of the same news outlets that spent the summer weirdly fixated on how many trips to his Delaware home Biden was taking as president.
It’s easier to hype Trump’s likely 2024 run if you don’t dwell on the fact he’s a proud authoritarian and committed liar. The press has deliberately learned no lessons over the last twelve months.
One year ago when Trump was first asked at a press briefing if he’d agree to a peaceful transfer of power following the election, regardless of the results, he refused to do so. “We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that,” he said. “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.”
It was arguably the most undemocratic thing any sitting U.S. president had ever said in public (“Get rid of the ballots”). The Times covered the shocking story not with a front-page, banner headline, but with a ho-hum dispatch on page 15, gently noting Trump "declined an opportunity on Wednesday to endorse a peaceful transfer of power."
Trump’s initial threat to not abide by the election results wasn’t treated as big news. Just like last week’s coup memo wasn’t big news. (CNN and the Washington Post proved to be the strong exceptions on that story.)
The implications are terrifying. “The United States is not unique” in its democratic decline, Staffan Lindberg, a political scientist at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg told the Washington Post last year. "Everything we see in terms of decline on these indicators is exactly the pattern of decline” seen in other nations sliding into autocracy.
While in office, Trump demanded the DOJ investigate his political enemies, fired government whistleblowers, and enriched himself by billing the U.S. government millions of dollars, while getting impeached twice. During the run-up to last year’s campaign he sabotaged the U.S. Postal Service; wrecked the census, and undermined the legitimacy of the electoral process itself.
Today, the D.C. press can barely contain its excitement at the idea of the 2020 loser running again, and possibly returning to the White House. And they have signaled they’ll make no changes in how they cover him. That glee stands in sharp contrast to the same press corps that told Hillary Clinton to “go away” after she lost in 2016.
We know news outlets miss Trump because everyone knows if he wins a second term, every minute of every White House press briefing would be carried live and in full, just as they were for his first term. For Biden’s White House though, the live coverage was curtailed just weeks into the Democrat’s presidency.
A dangerous autocrat who’s devoted to wrecking the American election process is waiting in the wings to become the GOP nominee in 2024, and the Beltway press can’t wait.