Has the mainstream media already made its peace with fascism? We’ll soon find out

Joe Biden is still president, for now. But America’s democracy crisis is getting worse. The Republican-fascists and their allies are undeterred. If anything, they are energized and have escalated their attempts to end democracy in America.

In the new America the Republican-fascists are trying to force into being, If you are not one of the MAGA elect, your life will be hell. If you think your life is difficult now, it will be orders of magnitude worse if the fascists and their movement achieve their goals.

As the New Republic recently warned, “Our system of government is crumbling. Around the world, autocracy looms. The tasks ahead could not be more urgent.” But instead of explaining this reality to the American people in a consistent, clear, repeated, transparent and direct way — while providing the larger context and importance of these facts — the mainstream news media has, for the most part, chosen to focus on the latest distraction.

As public opinion polls have repeatedly shown, the result is a growing lack of concern about Trump’s coup attempt, the Republican-fascist movement and the overall crisis of democracy. Among those Americans who do care there is a lack of unity about the cause of the democracy crisis, who is most responsible and what can be done to solve it.

The mainstream media is possessed by normalcy bias and clings to fantasies of an old order of more or less functional democracy. What we describe as “normal politics” colors how the news media, and the country’s leadership class more generally, views all political events. Even if that framework has been broken for years, and no longer applies in a time of great change and disruption.

RELATED: Is America the “world’s greatest democracy”? In 2022, we don’t even crack the top 50

The Republican fascists are leading a revolutionary movement. The news media, with its outmoded tools and assumptions, is largely unable to comprehend such a force. For many in the news media, access is more important than truth-telling. The powerful cannot be trusted to police themselves, and also cannot be trusted to admit when a societal institution is in crisis because they are dependent on that institution for meaning, prestige, authority and resources.

Powerful interests in the American media may actually want Trump to win in 2024 — or at least to stage a bruising rematch with Joe Biden.

There are other reasons as well, which include avarice, greed, denial, fear, willful ignorance, laziness, bad habits, anxiety and immaturity. As the late media critic and author Eric Boehlert highlighted in what would be his last newsletter, there are powerful interests among the mainstream news media who actually want Donald Trump to win in 2024 — or at the very least to stage a competitive rematch with Joe Biden — because that would be “exciting” and “good for business.”

Right-wing propagandists who do the work of the Republican-fascists and larger white right represent a particular type of danger and threat to American democracy. But perhaps just as dangerous are the professional centrists and hope-peddlers who keep telling the American people — in the face of the preponderance of the evidence and common sense — that somehow everything will be OK.

This is like telling a person who has been impaled by their steering column during a horrific car accident that they will be fine, when in fact they will be lucky to survive and this event has dramatically altered the course of their life. The same will be true of America if it survives the neofascist assault.

The American people need to be told the harsh truth in this moment of impending disaster: What follows are some of the stories that should have dominated the headlines for weeks. Instead, they have come and gone almost immediately, to be replaced by the “controversy of the day,” such as an incident I hardly need to explain in which one grotesquely rich celebrity slapped another one before an entire auditorium full of obnoxiously rich people. That was apparently far more newsworthy than a literal threat to the safety, security and future of the American people.

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Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump Jr. was in communication with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows within days of the 2020 election, scheming about about how to alter the election results in his father’s favor. Trump Jr. specifically discussed the plan to use Republicans in Congress and state legislatures to nullify the vote, writing: “We have operational control Total leverage.… Moral High Ground POTUS must start 2nd term now.” These plans were effectively in motion weeks before Election Day. The New York Times highlighted these “revelations” for one day’s news cycle.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell also knew about Trump’s coup plot — and of course did not warn the public, Congress, the press or federal law enforcement. CNN’s Manu Raju reported on this last week, outlining the scenario by which Trump believed he could claim victory:

If Trump could successfully pressure Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to de-certify Biden’s narrow win in Georgia, that would lead to a domino effect: Officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan would follow suit and overturn Biden’s electoral victory, Trump believed, a stunning reversal that could keep him in the White House for a second term. And Trump was certain he could subvert the election outcome, telling McConnell, then the Senate majority leader, and other top Republicans that he had personally been on the phone with officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan — and they told him they would move to keep him in power, despite the results showing Biden had won their states.

“I’ve been calling folks in those states and they’re with us,” Trump is reported to have told the Senate GOP leaders in a private December 2020 phone call, according to a soon-to-be-released book by New York Times political reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, both CNN political analysts.

It is increasingly clear that Attorney General William Barr also knew about the Trump cabal’s various schemes to steal the 2020 election, which is why Barr abruptly resigned to protect himself from any negative consequences from a plot he knew was unconstitutional and illegal.

We also now know that Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, were coordinating with Meadows months before Jan. 6, 2021, as they plotted out scenarios meant to ensure that Trump would remain president — regardless of the actual results. 

Other reporting has revealed that right-wing activist Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was involved in the planning and execution of Trump’s coup attempt. It appears highly likely that Clarence Thomas has abused his power to protect his wife from any consequences. Again, the mainstream news media mentioned this story only briefly before moving on.

John Eastman, the right-wing legal scholar who devised the quasi-legal plot by which Republicans in state legislatures and in Congress would help Trump steal the 2020 election (a plan described by Trump adviser Peter Navarro as the “Green Bay Sweep”) has continued with his machinations. Eastman and the other right-wing agents who are setting the stage for a “legal coup” in 2024 and beyond are ever closer to making it likely that the Republican Party can control the White House (and national politics more generally) regardless of how the American people vote.

On Monday, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the House select committee investigating the coup attempt of Jan. 6, 2021, confirmed again what has been publicly known since well before that infamous day: Donald Trump had plans to use the Insurrection Act to declare martial law and remain in power indefinitely. Raskin told reporters:

This was a coup organized by the president against the vice-president and against the Congress in order to overturn the 2020 presidential election.… We’re going to tell the whole story of everything that happened…. Trump was prepared to seize the presidency and likely to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law. There was a violent insurrection and an attempted coup and we were saved by Mike Pence’s refusal to go along with that plan.

The New York Times recently explored the possible role of Jason Sullivan, a former aide to Roger Stone, in inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump’s followers. According to Times reporter Alan Feuer, Sullivan was on a conference call a week earlier with a group Trump supporters during which he “made an urgent plea”:

After assuring his listeners that the 2020 election had been stolen, Mr. Sullivan told them that they had to go to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021 — the day that Congress was to meet to finalize the electoral count — and “descend on the Capitol,” according to a recording of the call obtained by The New York Times.

While Mr. Sullivan claimed that he was “not inciting violence or any kind of riots,” he urged those on the call to make their presence felt at the Capitol in a way that would intimidate members of Congress, telling the group that they had to ensure that lawmakers inside the building “understand that people are breathing down their necks.”

He also pledged that Mr. Trump was going to take action on his own; the president, he said, was going to impose a form of martial law on Jan. 6 and would not be leaving office.

“Biden will never be in that White House,” Mr. Sullivan declared. “That’s my promise to each and every one of you.”

In a new piece at the Guardian, Hugo Lowell reports that leaders of the Oath Keepers, who have been indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy over the Capitol attack, had contacts with members of the Proud Boys and the Stop the Steal movement, and may also have been in touch with Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas (who was formerly Trump’s White House physician). The text messages revealing these contacts, Lowell writes, could “strengthen” the theory “that the Capitol attack included a coordinated assault”:

Oath Keepers text messages released in a court filing on Monday night showed members of the group were in direct communication with the Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio in the days before the Capitol attack….

That close relationship is certain to be of interest to the House committee as it zeroes in on whether the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys coordinated an attack on the Capitol in an attempt to stop certification of Joe Biden’s election win over Donald Trump.

The key question here, as Lowell puts it, is “whether Trump oversaw a criminal conspiracy as part of his attempt to hold on to power.”

It is now clear that members of the Oath Keepers and other right-wing paramilitary groups were in communication about their plans for Jan. 6. Some members of the Oath Keepers actually stockpiled guns and ammunition in a hotel across the Potomac River in Virginia, anticipating what they believed would be a several-days long gun battle as part of a “patriotic” revolution to keep Trump in office and stop “traitors” such as Biden and the Democrats.

The news media’s decision not to emphasize all of these recent news developments, or to draw the clear connections between them, is part of a much larger problem.

Since at least 2015, the media has downplayed the danger of Trump and his movement, while mocking those who pushed back as suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome.”

Since at least 2015, the media has consistently downplayed the danger that Donald Trump and his movement represent — and in the 2016 campaign, consistently and grotesquely amplified Hillary Clinton’s real and imagined shortcomings. Once Trump became president, the pattern continued as the media defaulted to obsolete norms about “fairness” and “balance,” in service to their naive hope that Trump would “pivot” and become “presidential.” Those public voices who argued that would never happen, and that Trump aspired to lead an authoritarian or outright fascist regime, were mocked as suffering from “Trump derangement syndrome” or shamed for “lacking faith” in democratic institutions and the “good will” and “wisdom” of the American people.

As Trump’s coup attempt became imminent and the warning signs were obvious — Donald Trump and his allies and spokespeople publicly announced their intentions for months — most in the mainstream news media simply denied that such a thing was possible. When the nightmarish events of Jan. 6 unfolded in real time, many of those same voices then pretended that they had been on the right side of history all along. To this day, they have not publicly apologized for normalizing, enabling and empowering Trump, or for minimizing the danger he and his followers represented.

At Press Watch, media critic Dan Froomkin summarizes these failings:

When these reporters write about Trump these days, they generally pause to note the centrality of the Big Lie. But they don’t treat him as manifestly unfit for public office and a threat to American democracy. This is what I call the normalization of the profoundly abnormal….

This man is a provably hateful, vindictive, lying, cheating, stealing insurrectionist who inspires slavish devotion from a white nationalist base and sycophancy from craven Republican leaders. His even further accelerating authoritarian tendencies —  combined with his party’s full-on assault on voting rights and refusal to honor election results – directly threaten key constitutional protections and rights that have defined this country since its founding. It couldn’t be more clear that in a second term, he would ignore even the few rules he adhered to last time. The federal bureaucracy would be purged of expertise and competence, all of government would be turned to serve his whims and fortunes. To the extent that the U.S. remains the leader of the free world, it would cease to be.

This is not hard to support with evidence. Just in the past few weeks, the man who tried to steal an election said his only regret is that he didn’t personally set siege to the Capitol.

I suspect that reporters and editors at our leading news organizations assume that most readers already realize how dangerously unhinged Trump is — and that readers who don’t accept that will be turned off if reporters are blunt about it.

But it has to be said. It can’t just be assumed.

Not saying is enabling. So why don’t they say it?

My answer to that question is that mainstream media helps to police the boundaries of the approved public discourse, and cannot be trusted to police themselves. This has created an institutional crisis of legitimacy with no ready solution.

On Twitter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times reporter, author, and the creator of the 1619 Project, recently offered this suggestion: “I’ve been thinking more and more that newsrooms need to hold an all-staff meeting where they invite democracy experts & historians in & really do a massive reset of how we are covering what’s happening in our country right now. It’s not about partisanship but covering reality.”

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, columnist Will Bunch offers another intervention, arguing that what we see now is: 

… the failure of the powerful people who could change this dynamic — who could agree that when the American Experiment faces a life-or-death crisis, the promise of journalism isn’t to cover that cliff plunge with “objectivity” but to advocate like hell for democracy — who haven’t so far been listening.

The general attitude of newsroom leaders hasn’t been that journalism needs to reform to fight this asymmetrical warfare, but can just crank up the volume on the old inadequate ways. “We’re not at war … we’re at work,” the Washington Post’s now-retired Marty Baron insisted, while the New York Times’ Dean Baquet — spiritual godfather of the Trump-voters-in-diners-still-like-Trump genre — is lately more concerned that his reporters are engaging their critics on Twitter than with asking if maybe their Twitter critics are right.

If American democracy and society are to survive this dark period, leaders of American media must do better. They are running out of time. There is also the more cynical, and more likely, prospect that the news media as an institution, and many of its most prominent voices, will simply adapt to whatever new “normal” a full-on Republican-fascist regime imposes once it takes power in 2024 or in the years beyond. If one worships at the mantle of power and influence, rather than truth and democracy, such a decision is only natural. 

What happens to a democracy when its supposed truth-tellers and other guardians are complicit, actively or otherwise, with authoritarianism, fascism, anti-intellectualism, gangster capitalism and the other evils that seek to undermine and destroy that democracy? The American people are finding out right now.

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