To amplify or not to amplify? That is the question political journalists are wrestling with as Donald Trump engages in increasingly explosive rhetoric seemingly every day.
Both options are widely seen as fraught.
On the one hand, amplifying him rewards him and risks even further radicalizing his supporters, potentially inciting violence.
On the other hand, how could any self-respecting journalist simply tune out the unhinged and dangerous hyperbole from the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination?
There is an obvious answer, however:
Journalists cannot ignore him.
But when he says something that illustrates his continued descent into fascist rhetoric, the real news is not so much the particular thing he said, it’s that he said it and that Republican leaders and Republicans generally still aren’t renouncing him.
The thrust of these stories should be that the current state of American politics is such that he isn’t being roundly condemned by his party even as he threatens core American values like the rule of law and freedom of the press.
These stories would ultimately be about his level of support, and why he still has any — a question we don’t raise nearly often enough as he goes further and further off the rails.
When, for instance, he accuses public officials and the media of treason punishable by death, reporters should categorically state that what he is doing is classically authoritarian behavior. Then they should ask Republican leaders and Trump supporters to say whether or not they agree with him and why.
And reporters should do that every time Trump says something alarming.
The news is, legitimately, that he’s retaining his position as the de facto leader of the Republican Party even while he says things that are starkly anti-democratic, shockingly cruel, wildly clueless, blatantly illegal, and/or morally depraved.
Reporters should also explore what, if anything, would be a bridge too far for Republican leaders or the Republican base. And if there is no such thing as too far, the stories should be about how far gone the leadership of a major party and a chunk of the electorate has become.
Imagine if journalists saw someone like Trump enjoying public support in any other country. They wouldn’t just write about what that person said, nor would they ignore it. They’d want to figure out: What is happening to that country?
Finding the Right Tone
A common complaint among reporters is that Trump says so many crazy things, it’s impossible and undesirable to keep up. As NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted:
Flooding the zone breaks the alert system. Keep warning (front page news!) and you can sound hysterical, out of touch. Stay cool (“that’s just how he talks…”) and you risk normalizing the threat. There’s no good answer, except for finding the right tone.
News reporters have failed to find the right tone. They should look to opinion journalists for pointers.
What Josh Marshall wrote here would be a legitimate news lede — something that ought to be on the front page of the New York Times rather than in a column for Talking Points Memo:
This is the moment we live in in the history of the American republic, a man who talks like a character out of a dystopian novel about the end of America is the choice of about half of Americans to be the next President.
Also in Talking Points Memo, David Kurtz recently wrote:
The past few days have reinforced how unhinged Trump has continued to become and how political violence is the core of his message and for many his central appeal.
Media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday that “it’s important to understand this rhetoric for what it is – a crucial tool of a political leader plowing the ground for the authoritarian regime he intends to lead.”
Citing Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the expert on authoritarianism, Sullivan wrote that “they paint the picture that violence is not merely necessary to fight back. It’s actually good, a necessary way of reasserting control against corruption.”
In New York magazine, under the headline Trump Wants His Enemies to Fear for Their Lives, Eric Levitz recently wrote:
[I]t’s not remarkable for Trump to issue a baseless (yet incendiary) allegation against one of his critics. What is noteworthy — or at least, should be — is a leading presidential candidate deliberately trying to intimidate his perceived enemies through tacit threats of violence. And it seems fair to conclude that this is precisely what Trump is up to.
Writing in the Atlantic, Brian Klaas, a political scientist who studies political violence across the globe, decried the scant media attention given to Trump’s threats. He explained:
Bombarded by a constant stream of deranged authoritarian extremism from a man who might soon return to the presidency, we’ve lost all sense of scale and perspective. But neither the American press nor the public can afford to be lulled. The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power. That is the story of the 2024 election. Everything else is just window dressing.
On his Substack blog, Klaas expanded on his media criticism, writing that “the press has succumbed to the numbing effect of the Banality of Crazy, once reporting on every single Trump tweet in early 2017 because it was unusual, but now ignoring even the most dangerous policy proposals by an authoritarian who is on the cusp of once again becoming the most powerful man in the world—precisely because it happens, like clockwork, almost every day.”
Meanwhile in Newsland
Michelle L. Price and Nicholas Riccardi of the Associated Press did an admirable job of contextualizing Trump’s recent statement on Thursday, writing that “the rhetorical escalation on display in recent weeks is notable for its parallels to the hardline approaches that are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes that he has occasionally praised, such as the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin or North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.”
His recent statements on shooting shoplifters, for example, call to mind strongman leaders he has previously praised such as former Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs featured “extrajudicial killings” of thousands of suspects without a trial, or other countries where military leaders disappear after falling out of favor with the regime.
They noted the effect of his rhetoric (see also my August 2022 column, The phrase you’re looking for is “stochastic terrorism.)
Trump’s words also can rile up his supporters and have direct consequences, most glaringly in the case of Jan. 6, 2021, when his lies about his 2020 election loss revved up a mass of supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol in a failed effort to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s presidential victory.
And they described how fellow Republicans are not only failing to address Trump’s more incendiary rhetoric, but in some cases are incorporating “the former president’s vendettas and impulses” into their own agendas.
In a less successful attempt, five New York Times reporters — Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman, Alan Feuer, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush — took a sad stab in late September at addressing the omnipresent threat of violence in Trump’s words. They wrote that “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.”
But at no point did they pause to explain to the readers what’s wrong with that, or how central the rule of law is to our democracy. No Trump ally was asked how they can defend his statements. Criticism of Trump’s words was left to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
In a slightly better effort in the Times this week, Jonathan Swan, Haberman, Charlie Savage and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega wrote that Trump’s views about shooting missiles at Mexican drug labs have not been renounced by Republican leaders. In fact, quite the opposite:
Mr. Trump’s notion of a military intervention south of the border has swiftly evolved from an Oval Office fantasy to something approaching Republican Party doctrine.
But the explanations of why that would be a bad thing were once again muted and left to third parties including the Mexican president and unnamed “analysts.”
The contextualizing paragraph didn’t conclude that the idea was nuts, which it is, but rather cast it as a symbol of how the party’s “attraction to seeking a military solution to the drug problem is a reminder that the G.O.P. …. still reaches for armed force to address some complex and intractable problems.”
On Monday, after Trump said that Comcast, the owner of NBC and MSNBC, “should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason,” Martin Pengelly of the Guardian tried to put that in its proper context.
But even he couldn’t bring himself to call out Trump’s behavior in his own words – instead, turning the headline and top of the story over to a left-wing meme-producing group that “said the former US president and current overwhelming frontrunner in the Republican 2024 presidential nomination race had ‘gone full fascist’”.
Nice try. But what’s needed is not just context — and certainly not just outsourced context.
What we need is reporting that, with an appropriate amount of incredulity, explores how it is possible that Trump’s flatly outrageous rhetoric doesn’t automatically disqualify him in the minds of the vast majority of American voters.
Every time he erupts, isn’t widely renounced, and remains a leading candidate for president, is one step closer to fascism.