Corporate media seems to lack the vocabulary to accurately describe the modern Republican Party.
The latest example, of course, is the election of a new Speaker of the House: Mike Johnson, an insurrectionist anti-gay right-wing extremist Trump proxy.
Those words accurately describe the little-known congressman from Louisiana. In fact, they’re quite restrained.
It would be even more accurate to call him a bigoted Christofascist member of the Trump cult willing to end democracy as we know it.
Any of those descriptions, of course, are way too blunt for the dignified editors of our top newsrooms — all of whom believe in balance more than accuracy.
But consider how poorly the words they choose describe the reality of the Republican Party and its current leadership.
In their lead stories, Johnson’s political views were summed up with words like “staunch conservative,” (AP) “conservative hardliner” and “religious conservative” (New York Times), and “lesser-known conservative” (Washington Post).
But there is nothing “conservative” about insurrection. That’s radical extremism.
There is nothing “conservative” about shutting down the government just because you can. That’s radical extremism.
There is nothing “conservative” about abandoning Ukraine. That’s radically pro-Russian.
There is nothing mainstream about wanting to ban abortions nationally after six weeks with almost no exceptions. That’s radical Christian extremism.
There is nothing normal in this day and age about being virulently anti-gay. That’s radical, reactionary and inhumane.
Johnson, like the party he now represents, is an extremist and a reactionary. By calling him a conservative – a “staunch” one at that – the mainstream media coverage normalizes him. It even glamorizes him.
Here are some terms that accurately describe Johnson and the modern Republican Party (in alphabetical order):
In their “who is Mike Johnson” sidebars, our major media organizations came a bit closer to describing Johnson accurately, but hardly hit it out of the park.
“Folksy champion of Christian Right” (Bloomberg) is technically accurate, but normalizing.
“Republican hard-liner” (New York Times) is accurate — but only if you acknowledge what the Republican Party has become, and our elite media resolutely refuses to do so.
The Washington Post’s “5 things to know about Mike Johnson” sidebar at least provided some essential background:
- He opposed certifying the 2020 election
- He voted against further Ukraine aid
- He is antiabortion
- He is a close ally of Donald Trump’s
- He supports LGBTQ+ restrictions
And Amy Gardner and Michael Kranish wrote in the Washington Post about how Johnson “played one of the most significant roles of any member of Congress in the effort to overturn the election.”
But some of those sidebars also exposed just how unwilling our top reporters are to write the truth about people like Johnson.
Annie Karni of the New York Times led her profile of Johnson with his angry assertion in a hearing that abortions are sometimes performed on women “just seconds away from birthing a healthy child.” Karni said Johnson’s words exemplified “the lawmaker’s deeply conservative views, particularly on social issues, and his tendency to express them in inflammatory ways.”
No, they exemplified his zealotry and willingness to lie for his cause.
The Problem With Adjectives
I would submit that at the very least, “radical” and “extremist” should be used instead of “conservative” to describe Johnson and his party.
But there is no killer adjective. And there’s a reason for that.
“The adjective is only useful if it is contextualized,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an NYU history professor and expert in authoritarianism, told me on Wednesday.
The necessary context is the “process where one of our two parties is becoming very rapidly an autocratic party. It’s discarding democracy — or it already has.”
If there is a shorthand to contextualize what is happening to the Republican Party, she said, it is to state that its leaders “have fully embraced the authoritarian playbook.”
So journalists: When writing about incremental Republican actions, you should clearly contextualize them as “right out of the authoritarian playbook.”
You should then explain what the playbook calls for, which is a lot, and includes:
- Inciting political violence
- Consolidating power
- Eroding civil rights
- Eroding voting rights
- Demonizing minorities
- Demonizing immigrants
- Demanding loyalty
- Quashing dissent
- Attacking academics
- Corruption to benefit a kleptocracy
- Imprisonment of political opponents
- Control of the judiciary
- Claiming victimization
- Targeting media
- Control of social media
That is hardly exhaustive.
The Amnesia Problem
The thing is, these political journalists know better. Every so often, they write about what a second Trump presidency would actually look like and it’s appropriately terrifying.
Back in April, Washington Post reporters Isaac Arnsdorf and Jeff Stein reported that:
Former president Donald Trump has steadily begun outlining his vision for a second-term agenda, focusing on unfinished business from his time in the White House and an expansive vision for how he would wield federal power.
They noted that:
Trump’s emerging platform marks a sharp departure from traditional conservative orthodoxy emphasizing small government
And, while using “experts” as a foil, they raised the appropriate alarms:
Experts called some of Trump’s ideas impractical, reckless, self-defeating, potentially illegal and even dangerous.
In July, Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman wrote in the New York Times:
Donald J. Trump and his allies are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power over the machinery of government if voters return him to the White House in 2025, reshaping the structure of the executive branch to concentrate far greater authority directly in his hands.
In August, Lisa Mascaro of the Associated Press wrote:
With a nearly 1,000-page “Project 2025” handbook and an “army” of Americans, the idea is to have the civic infrastructure in place on Day One to commandeer, reshape and do away with what Republicans deride as the “deep state” bureaucracy, in part by firing as many as 50,000 federal workers.
Each of those articles is worth reading. But it was one-and-done for each of those news organizations. Any mention of the actual stakes is routinely lost in the coverage of the incremental developments.
The Jim Jordan Profile Debacle
Until Mike Johnson came along, I had a different case study to illustrate my argument about the media’s inability to find the right words to describe Republicans
In a whopping 12,000-word profile, two of America’s top journalists profiled Jim Jordan for the Washington Post on Sunday and described him as a gutsy fighter.
This much-anticipated but terribly disappointing profile of the man who the week before had seemed possibly headed for the Speakership was headlined “Relentless Wrestler,” with the subhead “Jim Jordan is an unyielding combatant, whether grappling on the mat or in the halls of Congress”.
David Maraniss and Sally Jenkins spent a fraction of the article digging into the sex abuse scandal that, by all indications, Jordan enabled while a coach for the Ohio State wrestling team.
But the focus of the article was on Jordan’s desire to take down opponents – not his toxic legacy of insurrection and weaponization of government.
The articles basically glamorized Jordan instead of calling him out as a danger to democracy.
Ben-Ghiat encourages reporters “to think more thoughtfully about what is the aim in glamorizing people who enabled an attempt to overthrow the government, and have shown only scorn toward our democracy? What is gained by putting them in a flattering light?
“It only encourages them to do more of that. If even the Post is writing this kind of puff piece, then what incentive do they have to change their ways? Very little.”