A major reason Donald Trump has gotten away with all his lies and crimes as president has been the contextless coverage he receives. Some excellent investigative reporting aside, the avalanche of Trump’s outrages against law, decency, and common sense has had the paradoxical effect of burying the big picture. One reporter who manages to avoid this syndrome is CNN’s Daniel Dale, who, on the presidential lying beat, has somehow kept his cool, his sense of humor, and most crucially, his focus on what really matters. After Trump’s and Joe Biden’s dueling town hall meetings, Dale tweeted something that should underlie all election coverage: “One of the differences between Trump and Biden from a fact check perspective is that Trump regularly says or amplifies claims that are like completely bananas, entirely detached from known reality, while Biden does not.”
This column has room for about a thousand words—nowhere near long enough to list the reasons Trump belongs not in the White House but in a prison psych ward. There’s his incompetence and malevolence vis-à-vis the coronavirus; his encouragement of the unhinged, anti-Semitic, and possibly terroristic QAnon; his racism; his sexism; his history as an alleged sexual predator and likely rapist; his horrible foreign policy, especially on Israel/Palestine but, really, everywhere; his corrupt self-dealing business arrangements; his attacks on our health care system and the environment, his extremist court picks; his tax cheating; his promotion of fascist violence against peaceful protesters; his policy of child kidnapping; his paranoia; his fealty to Vladimir Putin, his nepotism; his ignorance; his vulgarity; his cruelty; his narcissism; his childishness. This list isn’t close to exhaustive. (McSweeney’s has the best catalog I’ve seen so far, enumerating 954 of “Trump’s worst cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes.”) Like all decent people, I hope for a Biden landslide, but we must also grapple, sooner rather than later, with the heart of darkness in this country that has inspired tens of millions of fellow citizens to support this evil miscreant.
What’s most important right now, however, is for Trump and company to be thwarted in their plot to steal the election. He has clearly been preparing to do this since the moment the last one ended. In my new book, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie—and Why Trump Is Worse, I focus on Trump’s November 27, 2016, tweet in which he said, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” When pressed to provide evidence, Trump answered that “the very famous golfer Bernhard Langer” was waiting to vote in Florida on Election Day and was refused but some people “who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote” had done so. In reality, Langer never spoke to Trump and did not say to anyone what Trump charged. But when a CNN reporter noted that no evidence could be found to support Trump’s ludicrous contention, the new leader of the free world responded by sharing a tweet from someone who appeared to be a 16-year-old fanboy demanding, “What PROOF do u have DonaldTrump did not suffer from millions of FRAUD votes? Journalist? Do your job!”
Trump then repeated his nonsensical claim about the allegedly illegal votes in a private meeting with congressional leaders shortly after his inauguration. Reporters wore out their thesauruses looking for a way to report this ridiculous lie without saying the word “lie”: “Trump Still Pushing Unconfirmed Claims” (New York Daily News), “Trump Repeats Unsupported Claim” (The Wall Street Journal), and “Without Evidence, Trump…” (The Washington Post). Many repeated Trump’s lie without any qualification—for example, “Trump Believes Fraud Cost Him Popular Vote” (CNN) and “Trump Continues to Insist Voter Fraud Robbed Him of Popular Vote” (The Hill). Today, however, it is the substance of the lie that matters most. On some level, Trump had to know how lucky he was to win three crucial states by a total of fewer than 80,000 votes after losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. He had to know that he could not depend on this next time, and as an alleged money-laundering, tax-cheating, fraud-executing rapist, he must also have been aware that if he lost reelection, he could end up behind bars. So stealing the election based on phony claims of voter fraud will be his play.
Again, remember it’s not just that Trump lied about 2016 but rather that the entire notion of widespread voter fraud is itself fraudulent. And yet a recent report by eight authors associated with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard analyzed 55,000 online media stories, 5 million tweets, and 75,000 posts on public Facebook pages that attracted millions of engagements and found that “Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign by using three core standard practices of professional journalism.” They pinned the blame on the media’s relentless “elite institutional focus (if the president says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.” Moreover, the study continued, “The efforts of the president and the Republican Party are supported by the right-wing media ecosystem, primarily Fox News and talk radio functioning in effect as a party press. These reinforce the message, provide the president a platform, and marginalize or attack” those who try to tell the story accurately.
Trump has enlisted much of his cabinet, the judiciary, the Republican Party, and the conservative media in his quest to destroy our democracy. But if he succeeds, he will also owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the so-called enemies of the people in the “fake news” media. He certainly could not have done it without them.