Politics / September 26, 2023

Donald Trump Calls Reporting the News a Capital Offense

In recent social media posts, he accused both a cable TV network and a serving military general of treason.

Chris Lehmann
Trump on his phone

Donald Trump looks at his phone during a meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House in 2020.

(Alex Brandon / AP Photo)

I still vividly recall the morning after the 2016 election. Numb with disbelief and sleep deprivation, I stumbled off the D.C. Metro and in to work. En route, I ran into another political reporter in the same bedraggled state. “Well, we did it,” he announced by way of greeting. “We broke the country.”

Seven years later, virtually nothing has changed. Everything about the 2024 election cycle is shaping up into another massive system failure for the American journalism establishment. We’ve already had repeated, massively promoted candidate interviews with former president and potential felon-in-the-making Donald Trump that have let his delusional precepts about proper political authority, elite criminal impunity, and the world at large go magisterially unchallenged. We’ve seen repeated efforts to appease and normalize the MAGA world’s eager embrace of fascist rhetoric and policymaking.

And over the weekend, we’ve seen the disastrous upshot of this see-no-evil school of faux-objective political reporting and commentary. In successive posts on his proprietary social media site, Truth Social, Trump has plainly laid out his bloodthirsty brand of American fascism, endorsing a potential death sentence for outgoing Chief of Staff of the Armed Services Mark Milley. Trump’s rendered this verdict against the decorated general for the grave trespass of informing China that some measure of stability had been restored to the American republic after Trump’s failed January 6 coup—and that no military attack on China was in the offing. (In reality, of course, Milley’s call to his counterparts in China was approved by Trump White House officials.) Not content with calling for a military political opponent’s head in a tumbril, Trump took to his Truth Social account again on Sunday to deliver a tirade against broadcast TV outlets for not bending the knee to his full satisfaction. “They are almost all dishonest and corrupt,” Trump now inveighed, “but Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC News, and in particular MSNBC, often and correctly referred to as MSDNC (Democratic National Committee!) should be investigated for ‘Country Threatening Treason.’” Denouncing such coverage as “one big Campaign Contribution to the Radical Left Democrat Party” Trump again pledged to carry out a righteous executive-branch vendetta against these enemies du jour once he’s returned to power:

I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events. Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE? They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! The Fake News Media should pay a big price for what they have done to our once great Country!

This authoritarian two-minute hate, like the one preceding it, points up an escalation of hostilities in Trump’s already addled, vengeance-haunted brain. In tossing around make-believe offenses like “country-threatening treason” (as opposed, one is forced to note, to the country-supporting kind) to describe news gathering and commentary, Trump is looking to turn the right’s long-marinating list of culture war grievances against the press into a police state’s enemy list—and again, a cause for execution, since that is the traditional punishment for treason.

Yet the media’s posture, even toward this direct threat to its own operations and mission, remains a textbook study in elite befuddlement, presented in the empirically bankrupt and tedious cookie-cutter formulations of both-sides journalistic dogma. Here, for example, is the The New York Timesdutiful breakdown of Trump’s overt calls for political violence:

Mr. Trump has denied promoting violence. He says that his comments are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech, and that the proposed gag order is part of a far-ranging Democratic effort to destroy him personally and politically.

“Joe Biden has weaponized his Justice Department to go after his main political opponent— President Trump,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the former president.

But Mr. Trump’s language has often been, at a minimum, aggressive and confrontational toward his perceived foes, and sometimes has at least bordered on incitement.

Trump denies doing it, his flacks produce an incoherent account of a “weaponized” justice system targeting the maximum insurrectionist, and well, the tone of it all is so very distressing, uncivilized, and “aggressive and confrontational.” The fretful tone policing here calls to mind the mid-century critic Robert Warshow’s depiction of how the editorial braintrust at The New Yorker reacted to news of the atomic bomb: “They never dreamed the world’s inelegance could become so dangerous.”

Among other things, this rhetorical tic of wishing away the whole ugly question of real-world MAGA-incited violence serves to whitewash the press’s own role in pushing the Trump movement to the forefront of the national scene. Throughout the 2016 cycle, the Times bent over backward in countless dispatches to hype the non-scandal of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, out of the same brittle both-sidesist orthodoxy. And back when CNN was lavishing acres of free and extravagantly unearned coverage on the Trump campaign, the network’s idiot CEO Jeff Zucker—the same soulless hack who had overseen Trump’s celebrity tour as a reality-TV host at NBC’s The Apprentice—justified the network’s rubbernecking treatment of the 2016 Trump candidacy thusly: “Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those [Trump rallies] on the air.” Whatever you might call this outlook—brain-dead titillation comes to mind—it’s the polar opposite of news judgment, the process by which journalists are supposed to sift through the detritus of America’s gladiatorial campaign scene to determine what questions and issues should animate the urgent rescue of a putative republic in steep imperial decline.

Now, of course, this condition is so advanced that Trump’s frontal assaults on democracy and press freedom don’t rate anything more than a cursory mention in mainstream political coverage. Trump’s post endorsing Milley’s potential execution merited this hurried one-sentence mention in the Times piece: “On Friday, Mr. Trump baselessly suggested in a social media post that Gen. Mark A. Milley, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might have engaged in treason”—a clumsily worded summary that supplied none of the operational context behind Milley’s actions, leaving the occasion behind Trump’s baseless suggestion unaccounted for, and therefore unchallenged. (Not to be outdone, the web team at the The Washington Post placed this fastidious whopper atop the paper’s account of Milley’s imminent departure: “Gen. Mark Milley, polarizing joint chiefs chairman, exits center stage”—since our elite choreographed public discourse has now ensured that a general’s repudiation of a fascist coup is a dangerously polarizing position to assume in the defense of our formal democracy.)

What’s more, the Times dispatch, like the other episodic treatments of the subject, only considers Trump’s incitements to violence as a procedural legal matter—a potential violation of the gag order that special prosecutor Jack Smith has sought against him in the pending trial for his role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection. Among other things, this is a weirdly tail-chasing and insular meta-narrative for concerned citizens to reckon with—the former president faces charges that he’s inciting political violence in a case alleging that he’s… incited political violence.

More than that, though, the legal-procedural narrative filter works, yet again, to distance media interlocutors from the actual stakes of an authoritarian tyrant’s drive-by designations of any and all perceived political adversaries as “traitors,” fit for the scaffold or the firing squad. The media silence surrounding the actual political substance of Trump’s threats is deafening—and doubtless the prelude to a fretful future dispatch about just what Mr. Trump’s actual intent was when he deported us all to the gulags.

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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