Before I write another piece for Salon about the Age of Trump and the generally dark state of politics and the world, I tend to ask myself: Is this something the American people want to hear, or something they need to hear?
As final votes are cast in what may be the most important midterm elections in American history, with the future of democracy effectively on the ballot, this question becomes even more important.
I prefer the second option. For a variety of reasons, personal or professional or purely mercenary, many commentators and other public voices choose the first option. In the aggregate, that has done a great disservice to the American people and the country.
In this political climate we especially cannot afford the herd mentality of consensus thinking. America’s new reality of neofascism, the Big Lie and the demise of normal politics means that the old assumptions and rules no longer apply. As a result, the “mainstream” viewpoint and conventional wisdom do not have the predictive power and truth-value they once did — if indeed they ever did.
Sounding the alarm and consistently seeking to shine light into the dark places can make many people uncomfortable, especially if those people are invested in America’s national mythologies of inherent goodness and righteousness, if they share a vision of America as a shining city on the hill, a unique and exceptional nation. If you are among the voices who warn of trouble ahead, you can fall victim to the “kill the messenger” complex, becoming identified with the feelings of anxiety and dread caused by the very problems you are trying to warn others about.
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Such a dynamic of misdirected anxiety is a clear danger for any person of color who is committed to telling the truth about racism and white supremacy and their central role in American history and society.
In a recent Twitter post, Elie Mystal of the Nation explained this perfectly: “Telling the truth about white people to white people can exact a terrible price on one’s career and opportunities. And our civil rights leaders know especially that far too often that cost is exacted in blood.”
Telling the American people what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear, results in divergent and often radically opposed narratives about politics and current events.
In this political climate, we cannot afford the herd mentality of consensus thinking. The old assumptions and rules about politics no longer apply, if they ever did.
For example, consider the reassuring narrative that Trumpism is a deviation from “normal” politics, to which we will return someday soon. According to this narrative, most Republican elected officials, candidates and voters are fundamentally honest and decent people, who are not MAGA cultists. Thanks to the innate goodness of America and Americans, a correction will inevitably occur.
A closely allied narrative: Who could possibly have imagined how bad Donald Trump would be as president? It was impossible to predict that an American president could be a shameless demagogue, and entirely reasonable to assume he would “grow” into the job and “pivot” toward “presidential” behavior.
Regular readers will have noted my complaints about the all-too-common narrative that the House Jan. 6 committee hearings were full of shocking, startling or incomprehensible revelations. Or the media’s amazement that Trump turns out to be an ignorant, mendacious and contemptible person. Surely his followers will get tired of this charade and turn away.
Consider the reassuring narrative that Trumpism is a deviation from “normal” politics, to which, thanks to the innate goodness of America and Americans, we will soon return.
Relatedly, we have been treated to many assurances that of course Trump will be prosecuted and convicted and likely sent to prison. That, after all, is the American way: No one is above the law! As for the threat of widening right-wing political violence or a sustained insurrection, that is a dreadful but temporary result of “polarization.” That too shall pass because such things are unsustainable here in America, where we are united by shared values of “democracy” and “patriotism.”
It is almost painful to note how often we were told that Roe v. Wade was settled law, and it was a wildly improbable fantasy to believe that the Supreme Court would take away women’s reproductive rights after nearly 50 years. And of course, after that happened we were told that the Dobbs decision would save the Democratic majority in the House and be the virtual death knell of Trumpism and the Republican fascist movement. (To be fair, while that seems unlikely we still await a verdict as I write this.)
Observers have also protested that Republican candidates in 2022 are ridiculous. Who would ever vote for the likes of Herschel Walker or Dr. Oz or J.D. Vance or Doug Mastriano? The American people will make wise decisions in the end. No “red wave” is in fact coming; instead we will see a rising blue tide of women, younger voters, people of color and political independents who will join together to stop the Republicans and save the country.
Again, while that prognosis is overly optimistic it may contain a germ of truth. As we arrive at Election Day, the generic ballot shows a virtual tie between Republicans and Democrats. Turnout, as usual, is the big question. We may see a mixed verdict that does not become clear for several days.
But here is the less “good news” story about American democracy in this time of crisis. The Age of Trump and the larger neofascist movement should not have surprised anyone. It was planned in public for decades. The Republican fascists, “conservatives” and larger white right are doing exactly what they said they would do.
There is a deep well of authoritarianism, racism and anti-democratic values in America. “Trumpism” was not conjured from nothing through Trump’s peculiar personal charisma. He and his acolytes just gave tens of millions of white Americans (and a not-inconsiderable number of others) permission to release their hatred, venom and resentment
There is a deep well of authoritarianism, racism and anti-democratic or illiberal values in America. “Trumpism” was not conjured out of nothing through Donald Trump’s peculiar personal charisma.
Opinion polls and other research show that the popularity of Trump and his Big Lie candidates has not wavered much or been significantly blunted leading into the midterms. Moreover, Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election — and its necessary corollary, that the Jan. 6 coup attempt and Capitol attack were “legitimate” — is now accepted gospel by most Republicans and Trump voters.
Big Lie and “election denial” candidates are either leading or very close in many key races across the country. Neither the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision nor the FBI investigation of Trump’s apparent theft of classified national-security documents appear to have dramatically transformed the midterm elections in the Democrats’ favor.
We do not know how the midterms will conclude. But it appears that many among the Democratic Party’s core voters, such as African Americans, Latinos and younger people, report lower levels of enthusiasm for the midterms than in previous elections. Likely Republican voters, express more enthusiasm this year. President Biden’s approval numbers continue to be anemic, which is almost invariably a bad sign for the president’s party in a midterm election.
Polls have consistently shown that the American people are more concerned about gas prices and “the economy” than about “democracy,” which many see as a meaningless abstraction. A large majority of Americans believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, another ominous signal for the incumbent party.
Furthermore, Republicans have a coordinated campaign — again, in no sense a secret — to use the courts, threats of violence and intimidation, disinformation and various other tactics to sabotage the midterm elections on the local level, as necessary to ensure victory. Their longstanding voter-suppression campaign against Black and brown Americans in particular, driven by gerrymandering and a host of new laws aimed at making voting more difficult, is a major part of that strategy.
Republicans have in fact concluded that they do not need to win control of the House or Senate in order to corrupt or sabotage American democracy. Key governorships, secretary of state and attorney general offices and majority control of state legislatures are fundamentally more important, a lesson Democrats have yet to learn.
How can these conflicting narratives about America’s present and future be reconciled, if at all? Where do we go from here, after whatever we learn from these midterm elections? Any answers to those questions must be grounded in an uncompromising commitment to pro-democracy journalism and truth-telling, however uncomfortable that may be for the American people and their leaders and other elites.
Legendary former CBS News anchor Dan Rather recently offered his hard-earned wisdom about what America’s democracy crisis demands of journalists. He began by endorsing the traditional view that journalists must act as “arbiters of truth, while recognizing we can only aspire to get as close to the truth as is humanly possible,” but then observed how that convention can become a trap:
Take a long-held truth in newsrooms that journalists should cover political stories from a position of equivalence between the two major parties. But what if the truth of our current time strikes at the very bedrock notion of apolitical fairness?
With the rise of Donald Trump, I came to the conclusion early that this man could pose a danger to the fundamental nature of the United States as a constitutional republic based on the principles of democracy. I desperately hoped that I was wrong, but I saw a man who stoked division, scapegoated, lied with reckless impunity, and had no regard for the norms by which our nation has functioned.
Over the course of his run for the presidency, his time in office, and the wake of his defeat in the 2020 election, everything we have learned and witnessed further and more completely confirms his unfitness for office. It has only escalated the danger he poses to the safety and security of the nation.
We have also seen that the pestilence he embodies is not limited to him. It has spread throughout the Republican Party, as evidenced by the number of people in office and running for office who have embraced his bile, his lies, and his authoritarian instincts.
This isn’t a matter of conjecture. These are the stated, public positions of the former president, his enablers, and those who pay fealty to him — which at this point represents the majority of Republican officeholders.
Rather concludes by arguing that after a life in journalism, he can see no “bigger story than the current threat to American democracy,” which “weaves together so many of the threads of our national tapestry”:
It is about power and race and the rule of law and economic opportunity and the very notion of what freedom should be.
To my fellow journalists, I know this is difficult. We are in uncharted waters. The old rules for covering politics no longer apply. In the end, false equivalence is just another way of obscuring the truth from your readers and viewers.
The truth is what it is. It is damning. It is dangerous. And it is the direct result of those who are undermining our democracy.
Some months ago, I read an online comment posted in response to a news commentary at a prominent publication. It continues to resonate with me. “I wish these reporters and writers at this site would just make up their damn minds,” the commenter wrote. “One person says it is a disaster another one it’s going to be fine and Trump is done. I am tired and exhausted and confused and am about to not care anymore. Will they just make up their damn minds!”
That is a raw and uncomfortable truth, and also a call to action.
With Tuesday’s historic midterm elections — which may well not be decided until Wednesday or Thursday or an unknown future date — America is literally an undiscovered country. The future of our democracy and society is literally being decided right now.
But whatever the outcome, those of us with a public platform who will believe in democracy and the American project should commit ourselves to speaking with greater clarity, to be unafraid in speaking truth to power and not to shy away from saying uncomfortable but necessary things.
Sadly, too many of the media’s scarce resources are devoted to amplifying the voices of the country’s most powerful government officials and corporate executives, uncritically publicizing their opinions and short-term goals instead of exploring the collective impacts that their decisions might have on society and its most vulnerable members. This needs to change. Our industry needs to change.
We need to stop chasing ratings and meaningless clickbait headlines, stop treating politics like celebrity gossip and elections like popularity polls, demand change from the corporate boards and hedge funds that run news outlets without caring about the free press, and turn our focus toward the kind of journalism that our society deserves.
That sounds, and is, difficult. It may be overly idealistic. But America’s future hangs in the balance. This profession demands a new prime directive: an unswerving commitment to truth-telling, rather than cheerleading, sportscasting or seeking to win a popularity contest. That will be the only possible path forward for American journalism, and American democracy.
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