New York Times political reporters and editors are probably high-fiving each other today in celebration of the incredible bravery of their colleague Peter Baker, who definitively declared in Friday’s Times that Donald Trump has “embraced extremism”.
But as usual with the New York Times, it’s way too little, way too late.
Indeed, every baby step the New York Times takes toward recognizing the extraordinary danger posed by elements of the Republican Party to our democracy and our polity only further exposes how far they still have to go.
There is nothing bold about saying Trump has now aligned himself “with forces that used to be outside the mainstream of American politics.” The appropriate wording is “with forces whose views are so abhorrent that they have historically been shunned by all respectable people and institutions.”
And is the New York Times really saying that antisemitism, white supremacy, and sedition are now “within the mainstream”? Because by saying those forces “used to be outside the mainstream of American politics,” Baker is tacitly accepting that they are now in.
If that’s what Baker believes, then he should have made that the headline: “Trump has brought antisemitism and white supremacy into the mainstream of American politics.”
Baker writes that Trump’s “antigovernment jeremiads lately sound like those once relegated to the outer edges of the political spectrum.” Well, yes, but what does that mean? Two thirds of Republican voters still love him. He remains the head of a major political party. He cannot therefore be at the outer edge of the political spectrum.
What needs to be said is: “By engaging in antigovernment jeremiads that were once considered the provenance of lunatics and Nazis, Trump has pushed the American political spectrum off its foundations. He has opened the door wide to antisemitism and white supremacy. It is the obligation of any reasonable person or institution to do everything in their power to close that door firmly. And the Republican Party is not doing so.”
The lead of the story isn’t even news: Trump has made it very clear many times already that he sides with the mob he summoned to storm the Capitol, and against the law.
“He stands with the mob” is a good paragraph. But the news is his sitting down at a meal and figuratively, if not literally, embracing extremely public proponents of antisemitism and white supremacy.
Reading this article, you may wonder: Where has Peter Baker been for the last several years? He writes that it is only now – after the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia was convicted – that Trump can be placed “at the spiritual heart of a seditious conspiracy.”
I guess that wasn’t clear to Baker before. It was to the rest of us.
“The trial effectively established that there was an illegal plot to keep Mr. Trump in power despite his defeat in the 2020 election,” Baker writes.
The trial may have “legally” established that, but it was effectively established a long time ago – certainly after the January 6 committee hearings.
How empty-headed is Peter Baker? He evidently considers it possible that Trump had no responsibility for the plot whatsoever. Maybe it was just a coincidence!
The unanswered question remains what, if any, responsibility Mr. Trump had for the conspiracy, an issue to be addressed by Jack Smith, the newly appointed special counsel investigating the former president for his role in the Jan. 6 attack and the events that led to it. But if nothing else, the trial made clear that this was more than a peaceful protest that simply got out of hand. (my italics)
Read that over again. Baker believes the trial “made clear that this was more than a peaceful protest that simply got out of hand.” To whom was that not already clear?
His sentence construction is tentative – minimizing the worst-case scenario while allowing for the possibility that we don’t really know yet what happened, and that maybe Trump has just been misunderstood. He writes about Trump’s “acceptance, if not outright courtship, of the militant right.” It’s not even “outright courtship,” Peter. It’s “outright incitement.”
The most fundamental problem with the article is that “extremism” is way too weak a word for what Trump has “embraced.”
Extremism is threatening to tank the world economy unless we cut Social Security. Extremism is launching a congressional investigation of the January 6 committee. Extremism is preparing to impeach Joe Biden for who-knows-what.
By contrast, the overt racism and antisemitism and sedition that Trump is now embracing is not extremism. It is way, way beyond that. It is absolutely abhorrent conduct that shouldn’t be considered acceptable in American society, and hasn’t been, for decades.
But for Baker, it’s all euphemisms and sorry similes. Trump’s “former dinner guests fanned the flames on Thursday,” he writes, for example by saying “I like Hitler.”
What flames? Tell me what flames, Peter? It would be great if you acknowledged that by embracing them, Trump is giving oxygen to a despicable conflagration of hate, but you don’t say that do you? It’s just vaguely fans and flames.
There’s one chilling quote in the story, from Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the expert on authoritarianism, but it catches her talking tactics rather than morality: “For someone of Trump’s temperament, being humiliated by people turning away from him will only make him more desperate and more inclined to support and associate with the most extremist elements of society,” she said.
Baker’s overall perspective, however, is from a fantasy world of political strategists and gullible reporters where the Republican Party remains a normal political party.
“Republican critics worry the move taints the party at a time when it needs to broaden its support,” Baker writes, quoting one Republican political strategist. He repeatedly contrasts Trump with the “Republican establishment” and “Republican officeholders, led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.” (How many Republican officeholders would agree with that characterization?)
“Mr. Trump’s expanding embrace of extremism has left Republicans once again struggling to figure out how to distance themselves from him,” Baker writes. In reality, a staggering 95 percent of Republican midterm voters held a favorable view of Trump.
Even Baker’s strongest critiques are muted. Consider:
Mr. Trump has long flirted with the fringes of American society as no other modern president has, openly appealing to prejudice based on race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation, among others.
That may seem bold at first glance. But Trump has not “flirted” with the “fringes”. He has succored them. He has not “appealed” to prejudice. He is actively inciting prejudice and endangering Americans.
Baker ends by quoting yet another Republican political strategist posing the question of whether Trump is just pretending to adhere to fringe conspiracy theories, or whether he’s actually bought in.
That’s a stupid question. My question is: What more will it take for journalistic institutions like the Times to acknowledge that what Trump is saying requires condemnation, not speculation.