Donald Trump is continuing his campaign of public threats to injure, imprison or kill his perceived personal enemies, and other foes of the MAGA movement, if and when he takes power a year from now. The most recent example came in a series of posts on Truth Social last Thursday morning. Although certain aspects of these posts made headlines with respect to Trump’s preposterous claims of immunity, the full context is important.
In his trademark all-caps prose, Trump proposed that any U.S president “MUST HAVE FULL IMMUNITY, WITHOUT WHICH IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM/HER TO PROPERLY FUNCTION.” It’s unusually generous, by Trump’s standards, even to consider other actual or hypothetical presidents. Then he continued:
ANY MISTAKE, EVEN IF WELL INTENDED, WOULD BE MET WITH ALMOST CERTAIN INDICTMENT BY THE OPPOSING PARTY AT TERM END. EVEN EVENTS THAT “CROSS THE LINE” MUST FALL UNDER TOTAL IMMUNITY, OR IT WILL BE YEARS OF TRAUMA TRYING TO DETERMINE GOOD FROM BAD. THERE MUST BE CERTAINTY. EXAMPLE: YOU CAN’T STOP POLICE FROM DOING THE JOB OF STRONG & EFFECTIVE CRIME PREVENTION BECAUSE YOU WANT TO GUARD AGAINST THE OCCASIONAL “ROGUE COP” OR “BAD APPLE.” SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO LIVE WITH “GREAT BUT SLIGHTLY IMPERFECT.” ALL PRESIDENTS MUST HAVE COMPLETE & TOTAL PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY, OR THE AUTHORITY & DECISIVENESS OF A PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES WILL BE STRIPPED & GONE FOREVER. HOPEFULLY THIS WILL BE AN EASY DECISION. GOD BLESS THE SUPREME COURT! [Emphasis added.]
For Trump to claim that police must be allowed free rein to commit acts of violence with impunity was not a random “example.” Its implications should be obvious. This from the same man whose attorney recently argued in federal court that Trump, as president, could have ordered political rivals executed and accepted bribes without being held accountable before the law. (Under this ludicrous theory, impeachment is the only recourse against a criminal or corrupt president.)
This also from the same man who publicly threatened the life of Gen. Mark Milley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for alleged disloyalty because Milley refused to support a coup attempt against American democracy and the Constitution. And from the same man who has repeatedly threatened to have President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, special counsel Jack Smith, the judges and prosecutors in his various trials and virtually anyone else (including journalists) who attempts to hold him responsible for his crimes prosecuted for “treason.” As Trump is well aware, the traditional punishment for treason is execution.
Trump no longer bothers to conceal his desire to rule as dictator of a virtual police state, and to claim the right and power to imprison, torture and execute any and all who oppose him.
NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a leading expert on fascism, discussed Trump’s murderous intent in a Thursday social media post:
Trump is telling Americans very clearly that he will be jailing and killing Americans. Anyone who votes for him is complicit with these future crimes because of this transparency & these threats. Americans cannot say they did not know ahead of time.
Journalist Luke Zaleski echoed that warning:
Trump is telling you he’s gonna send his hessians to abuse you without due process. He’s a dictator emerging to take revenge on US citizens. Trump wants revenge. He’s a sick puppy, folks — and he’ll sic his dogs on anyone who fights to save America from him.
This “right” of the leader and ruling party to kill or abuse members of the public with impunity, and to reshape the law to their purposes, is a defining feature of dictatorships and autocracies.
Trump’s most recent threats against the American people (and, by implication, against democracy and civil society) attracted some mainstream news coverage for a day or so before disappearing down the memory hole. (Zeeshan Aleem’s essay at MSNBC was a notable exception).
Even so, there was little discussion of Trump’s specific threat or his self-comparison to a violent “rogue cop,” licensed to beat, torture, abduct or murder citizens with “total immunity” from prosecution. At this point, some of the most stalwart and reliable voices in the mainstream media have fallen into the trap of normalizing Trump’s deviant behavior. One prominent commentator, for example, wrote about Trump’s most recent threats while entirely ignoring his “bad apple” analogy. That commentator also never offered any clear statement or interpretation of what Trump’s promises of violent revenge will mean for the American people in practice. Instead, this journalist relied on quoting someone else, in rather too oblique a fashion, to get nearer the point.
That kind of political ventriloquism is utterly inadequate to the task of defeating Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement. Those people with a public platform who claim to defend democracy have a responsibility to be direct, bold and consistent in their truth-telling.
Why do we still face this problem? Why has the mainstream news media as an institution so consistently failed to focus on the MAGA movement’s promises, threats and acts of political violence and thuggery?
There are many reasons. Even after almost nine years of Trump’s central role in our political life, many in the mainstream media still believe that “normal” politics and the supposed institutions of democracy will be enough stop Trump and today’s Republican fascists. What follows from that is the naive hope or belief that continuing to cover Trump as a normal candidate, according to obsolete horserace standards of “fairness” and “balance,” will somehow cause our democracy crisis to go away. Coverage of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, as Trump’s rivals have fallen away, represented a brief return to familiar and comfortable terrain for the mainstream news media. But there is nothing familiar or comfortable about the Trumpocene era, and that security blanket will shortly be ripped away.
Of course there’s also the ad revenue, along with the clicks, shares and “traffic” — the material incentives, in other words — that may flow from normalizing Trump and his behavior. This is motivated, not unreasonably, by a fear that telling the American people what they need to hear about this worsening crisis, instead of what they want to hear, will result in backlash and buzzkill, meaning lower revenues. The attention economy, like other aspects of consumer capitalism, is demand-driven. As I have repeatedly warned in this space and elsewhere, hope-peddling, happy-pill selling and catering to the emotional immaturity of the American public can be a lucrative business.
Let’s not overlook that the “news media” consists of real people and human organizations: Trump’s threats against his supposed enemies, which surely include journalists, are frightening and upsetting. Ignoring or downplaying the seriousness of those threats is an understandable reaction to stress that makes it easier to go to work every day. Responding appropriately to this crisis is, without question, damaging to one’s emotional, spiritual and physical health.
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Realpolitik and self-interest may also be at play. Some reporters, editors and producers in mainstream media are positioning themselves with the expectation that Trump will win the election. They want access to his regime; the first Trump presidency was a media feeding frenzy.
Furthermore, many leading voices in the media, especially the professional centrists and institutionalists, have been conditioned by privilege to believe they are immune from any possible danger or threat, even from a dictatorial regime. Because of their skin color, their gender and sexual orientation, their class backgrounds and their lives rich with social and cultural capital, they cannot imagine they ever could become targets of state-sponsored violence. They may well learn otherwise.
As historian Heather Cox Richardson told me recently:
A lot of privileged white men simply do not believe that there’s a different way to look at the world than theirs. And they also don’t believe that anything could happen to them. … [M]any of them, in my experience, seem to believe that everybody ideally lives in a world in which they make all their own decisions, and they have no demands on them. … Now, I don’t know a woman who approaches the world that way. Because there are always family demands and friends’ demands and children and work demands. There’s a web of demands on you. You start from a position in which you can’t imagine that you can do whatever you want under any circumstances. And then if you take a step beyond that and you actually add into it, people who wish you ill … the world feels much more like a web than a world in which you can do anything you want. I can imagine a world in which I am not either allowed to do what I want, but also in which my very life is at stake. I sometimes think that that’s much easier for somebody like me to imagine, who’s worked as a waitress … than for somebody who came from a middle class suburb and went to a good school and has a good solid job.
In a series of essays at The American Prospect, historian Rick Perlstein shared a conversation he had with journalist Jeff Sharlet about the New York Times and its failings. Sharlet told him that on many previous occasions he had resisted others’ use of the word “fascist,” until he finally concluded that, in the Trump era, “This is the real deal. There’s a real fascist movement. And I don’t think we have on the table all the storytelling tools we need to counter it.”
The result was Sharlet’s book “The Undertow,” based on holding “hundreds of conversations, witnessing dozens of political and church services, and logging thousands of miles on the road.” But in a public discussion with Sharlet, an unnamed New York Times journalist — who evidently had not read Sharlet’s book — rejected the word “fascism”:
He was especially smug in the first utterance he offered to the audience: “Yeah, I don’t know if I would use that word” — his eyebrows arched disapprovingly — “it’s not a word we use in The New York Times.”
Then he practically giggled.
Sharlet then directed a question to him — “with love and affection for The New York Times and the dilemma that you’re in: What is the argument against calling that ‘fascism’?” …
“For the same reason we don’t call Trump ‘racist.’ It’s more powerful to say what something is than to offer a label on it that is going to be debated, you know, and distract from the reporting that goes into it.”
Sharlet: “Who is debating Trump’s racism right now?”
Mr. Times: “You can say something is ‘racist.’ You can say something is a racist thing. But putting a label on someone is distorting from the reporting that we do. And the reporting is much harder. And much more powerful than the writing” — what he implied was the only thing Sharlet did, perhaps in an armchair in a book-lined study, smoking a pipe, mongering labels. “And people are welcome to label things however they want, but there’s frankly nobody else doing the reporting that we do. … That’s what ten million people are subscribing to The New York Times for … And not to like sound too high and mighty, but the market has spoken, and they like what we’re doing.”
Privilege is the ability to avoid discomfort, and to bend subjective reality to fit your whims and desires. Black and brown people, Muslims, Jews, women, the LGBTQ community and members of other marginalized and targeted groups lack such a luxury. The mainstream media’s willful blindness to the threat of Trump and his movement, and what it will mean if he takes power in 2025, is creating the conditions for an American dictatorship and its reign of terror.