March 19, 2024

Why Can’t the Political Press Just Say the Truth About Trump?

Trump wants to be a dictator, and the pundit class keeps obfuscating that crucial fact.

Chris Lehmann

Republican presidential candidate former president Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Dayton International Airport on March 16, 2024, in Vandalia, Ohio.

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The great rolling beer hall putsch known as the 2024 Trump campaign plumbed grim new rhetorical lows over the weekend—but it was still not enough to upset elite press sensibilities. As with the rest of the right’s endorsements of racialized, Christian nationalist authoritarian rule, the nation’s political press treated a major political party’s embrace of fascism as a brow-furrowing exercise in both-sides euphemizing.

What’s this, a denial that migrants at the country’s southern border are human? Hmm, a troubling “doubling down” maneuver in campaign messaging. (That’s, of course, not to be confused with the outburst of strongman “doubling down” aimed at former GOP representative Liz Cheney, whom Trump wants to prosecute for the crime of failing to bow down to him.) Oh, the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee prophesying a “bloodbath”—that being “the least of it”—should he fail to gain maximum power this time out? That’s just stump hyperbole about auto tariffs. Never mind that the selfsame rally began with a hymn to the MAGA “martyrs” who staged a violent coup attempt at the US Capitol and that Trump—who has vowed to endorse sweeping pardons for convicted January 6 insurrectionists the moment he regains the presidency—called them “hostages.” As for the mob-style threat that, should the 2024 balloting fail to restore him to the Oval Office, elections as we’ve known them will cease to exist—“I don’t think you’re going to have another election, or certainly not an election that’s meaningful”—well, we’ll just quote it in a rally summary, and move on.

My Nation colleague Jeet Heer has persuasively argued that efforts to deplatform Trump and his fascist tirades have failed; indeed, the stakes of this cycle’s balloting demand that we get as full an accounting of the authoritarian MAGA worldview as we can. But the problem here is that the nation’s political press keeps blurring and obfuscating this central truth about the election as it recurs to a wan and dispassionate professional rhetoric of its own, pivoting on the imaginary premise that a judicious electorate, furnished with noncommittal dispatches from the front lines of the campaign, will spare the pundit class the hard work of calling the antidemocratic seizure of our politics by its true name. Hence, The New York Timesoriginal dispatch on Trump’s Dayton speech is so studded with the argot of elite knowledge-class euphemizing it reads like a disciplinary report forwarded with dismay to a prep-school headmaster. The oration in question, we learn in the article’s subhead, was a “caustic and discursive speech” that, yes, ”doubled down on a doomsday vision of the United States.”

How very unfortunate. Reading on, the puzzled citizen learns that the speech was “freewheeling” (though presumably not in the spirit of Bob Dylan’s second album). The regrettable “caustic” content of the speech did involve “dehumanizing language to describe immigrants” and the forecast of suspended or terminated elections henceforth—and what appears just as troubling to the Gray Lady’s campaign desk, “a steady stream of insults and vulgarities.”

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The overriding mood here is one of acute aesthetic discomfiture. Trump’s rally comments, we learn, were suffused in a “dark view” and “replete with attacks and caustic rhetoric.” Trump’s derisive roll call of prominent Democratic leaders and prosecutors lamentably also veered into “vulgar and derogatory remarks” that, among other things, “took jabs at [Illinois Governor J.B.] Pritzker’s appearance.” By way of summing up, we’re primly told that “Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches generally swing between scripted remarks and seemingly off-the-cuff digressions,” again calling to mind a report card more than a political analysis. The whole confusing summary winds down with several paragraphs about Trump not being able to follow his Teleprompter and threatening to withhold payments from the company that furnished it—as though this were somehow equivalent to calling immigrants “animals” and calling down national bloodbaths and election suspensions.

As work of sustained decontextualization, the Times’ performance is right up there with the Situationists and the Dadaists, but it’s par for the course for our Weimar political press. There is, after all, a blaring red-siren background to the Saturday Dayton performance that goes well beyond the tediously predictable protests of Trump campaign flaks that the “bloodbath” comment was improperly magnified and taken out of context by the faithless fake news industrial complex. On Friday, Trump hosted Hungarian dictator Viktor Orbán—another blood-and-soil exponent of nationalist ethnic purity and an eager helpmeet of Vladimir Putin. The next day, Trump was caught on a hot mic in advance of the Dayton rally declaring that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was also his kind of guy: “He speaks and his people sit up in attention. I want my people to do the same.”

Further afield from Trump’s own political pantheon and rally outbursts, there’s the brazen strongman corruption. Just last week, a CNN report disclosed that Brian Butler, one of the Trump employees mentioned in special prosecutor Jack Smith’s complaint in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, was actually carting out boxes of documents to his boss’s private plane even as Justice Department officials were raiding Trump’s Florida compound for those very papers. Meanwhile, disgraced and indicted Hunter Biden accuser Alexander Smirnov was found to be in receipt of a cool $600,000 funneled through a UK company run by Trump business associates in Dubai. And this was just last week’s tranche of corruptionist Trump news; nonetheless, it merited almost no sustained mention in the agenda-setting mainstream political press, which is presently convulsed with stories about how Trump is unable to summon the cash to cover the $454 million fine in his recently concluded New York civil fraud trial. (Needless to say, this Trump-centric tidbit also rates tons more media mentions than the underlying charges that produced the fine to begin with.)

The only hope that our broken press can take serious note of the ideological disfigurements and self-dealing opportunism behind the MAGA quest for ultimate power is a revolt within the news-producing caste. On the otherwise reliably debauched Sunday pundit scene, there was a faint but heartening stirring of dissent on the Trump-fascism question, when ABC’s This Week invited New Yorker writer Susan Glasser on its pundit panel to discuss her own analysis of an earlier unhinged Trump rally speech in Georgia. As talk turned to the Dayton travesty, the panel recurred to its above-the-fray comfort zone, tut-tutting that Trump was really getting worked up about auto tariffs when he invoked a bloodbath. Glasser, who is so far from a raving leftist that she dubbed John McCain’s 2018 state funeral “the biggest resistance meeting yet,” was having none of it:

I’m sorry, I just have to say something. Like Donald Trump is attacking, in a broad-brush sense, the basic pillars of American democracy, period, full stop…. It’s not about tariffs. That’s not the reason why millions of Americans are supporting Donald Trump. Let’s be real about that. You have a Republican congressman who came on here today, and he can’t even condemn in forthright, straightforward, honest terms, that ransacking of the United States Capitol by thousands of Trump supporters.

He says, well, you know, maybe there’s some problems with that. Donald Trump opens his campaign rally, Sarah, by saying, these are martyrs. These are victims. These are heroes. His whole campaign now is being built around an alternate reality, by the way, constructed on an enormous number of lie after lie after lie. That’s what he’s peddling to the American people. Not tariff policy. He’s peddling an alternate reality vision of America that is built on lies. Let’s be honest about that.

In anything resembling a sane mediasphere, this would be a mission statement for producers and editors on the campaign beat. Yet something tells me that Glasser won’t be coming back to ABC’s This Week anytime soon to, uh, double down.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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