In a democracy, the free press has a sacred responsibility. It must hold the powerful accountable, and provide the public with sufficient information to make informed political decisions.
During the 2016 presidential contest the mainstream American news media almost wholly abandoned that responsibility. Instead of reporting that Donald Trump was clearly and obviously an authoritarian in waiting, the American news media gave him an estimated $5 billion in free coverage. It was, and largely remains, verboten to call Donald Trump a fascist even though he exhibits, repeatedly and enthusiastically, almost all of the necessary traits.
He is a professional liar of the grandest kind -- the Washington Post estimates Trump has publicly lied at least 5,000 times since he entered the 2016 campaign. Yet it took the American news media almost a year into Trump's presidency to acknowledge that he would not "mature" or "pivot" and grow into his responsibilities as president.
Too many voices still refuse to call him a liar, preferring instead to say that the president uttered "untruths" or "inaccuracies," or that he was "mistaken."
Donald Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be a racist, a nativist and a misogynist. Again, too few voices in the American news media have the courage to describe him in plain terms as such.
After Trump's election some members of the fourth estate have finally realized that Donald Trump, the Republican Party and their voters are an existential threat to American democracy. It may be too little too late.
Donald Trump has his own state sponsored media in the form of Fox News and other agents of the right-wing echo chamber, playing much the same role that Pravda once played in the Soviet Union.
USA Today has decided to play along as well. This week the newspaper published an op-ed purportedly written by Trump, which may set a record for the most lies told by a sitting president ever published in an American newspaper.
Joseph Goebbels would be proud of such a piece of propaganda. Trump's USA Today op-ed, entitled "Democrats 'Medicare for All' plan will demolish promises to seniors" is so absurd that it could be featured in a new version of Mel Brooks' fictional musical "Springtime for Hitler" -- but instead starring Donald Trump in the featured role.
Trump writes that as a candidate he "promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions and create new health care insurance options that would lower premiums." That may be the only truthful statement in the article. Then Trump claims, "I have kept that promise, and we are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down."
He threatens that "the Democratic Party’s so-called Medicare for All" plan -- which Democrats have not officially endorses as a campaign plank -- "would really be Medicare for None."
Under the Democrats' plan, today’s Medicare would be forced to die. ... Democrats will seek to slash budgets for seniors’ Medicare, Social Security and defense.
Republicans believe that a Medicare program that was created for seniors and paid for by seniors their entire lives should always be protected and preserved.
Here are the facts. Donald Trump and the Republican Party want to take away protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. They also want to make it legal for insurance companies to charge women more for coverage. Trump and the Republicans will gut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social safety net programs in order to pay for the $4 trillion they gave to the richest Americans under their "tax reform" bill passed last year.
Other tax changes, either already enacted or proposed, would also hasten the rate at which Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid become insolvent. The insurance plans proposed by Trump and the Republicans do not provide adequate coverage or protections for consumers. Medicare for All, as proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and many others, would actually extend medical coverage and save money.
The editors of USA Today made an irresponsible choice to publish such an egregiously false op-ed, even if its putative author is president of the United States. USA Today should be held fully accountable by its readers and advertisers and by the general public for such a misguided decision. If small local newspapers are careful to limit how much space they give to local crackpots and political hacks, the standard should be much higher for a national newspaper read by millions of people.
It is also important to acknowledge how the American right has put the country's news media in a vise grip. The right and its messengers have spent several decades mainstreaming a lie about the "liberal news media". In reality, there is no such thing. The American news media is dominated by large corporations which are extremely risk-averse.
Moreover, media and communications scholars have exhaustively documented that rather than displaying a "liberal bias" the Americans news media has become overly responsive and sensitive to the demands of big business and conservatives.
Other research has shown that Republican and other right-wing perspectives are actually overrepresented, relative to those of liberals and progressives, on American news programs -- especially the Sunday political shows.
The sum effect of the right's highly successful "liberal bias" propaganda campaign is that USA Today and many other news outlets have been bullied and intimidated into submission. There is now a slavish devotion to "balance" and "fairness," even when that means failing the American people and betraying the fourth estate's sacred obligation to tell the truth.
The Republican war on language is wide-ranging and goes far beyond such buzzwords as the "liberal news media." President Richard Nixon used phrases such as "law and order". Ronald Reagan then piled on with his racist references to "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks."
In 1996, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote a memo called "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," which contained key words and phrases that right-wing operatives could use to win their political battles by shaping public opinion. Gingrich's talking points have now become ingrained in America's political discourse and largely taken for granted. In the two decades since his infamous memo, Gingrich and other right-wing operatives have added such coded phrases as "makers and takers," "job producers," "hard-working Americans," "cultural Marxism" and "social justice warriors" to their lexicon. Donald Trump has of course contributed with his slogans: "America First" and "Make America Great Again."
But the greatest victory in the American right's assault on language and critical thinking is the way they have tainted and slurred words and ideals as noble and basic as "liberal" and "progressive."
Donald Trump's use of the phrase "open-borders socialism" introduces a new weapon in the right-wing's war on American political discourse and common sense. Trump writes:
Today’s Democratic Party is for open-borders socialism. This radical agenda would destroy American prosperity. Under its vision, costs will spiral out of control. Taxes will skyrocket. And Democrats will seek to slash budgets for seniors’ Medicare, Social Security and defense.
"Open-borders socialism" is a powerful phrase precisely because it is an empty vessel, a floating signifier that has no meaning but can be filled with the biases and prejudices of the largely white right-wing, low-information voters who can be emotionally triggered by those words.
Because they are ensconced in the right-wing echo chamber, Trump and his supporters understand such language in way that other people do not. For those Americans who are better informed and grounded in empirical reality, "open border socialism" is utter gobbledygook, a political incantation akin to the "speaking in tongues" heard in some evangelical churches.
Facts do not matter to members of Donald Trump's political cult. Nevertheless the facts exist and must still be spoken.
The Democratic Party does not advocate "open borders." In reality, illegal immigration from Latin America has been a net negative -- with more people leaving the United States than entering -- since 2007. Democrats and other reasonable people want a sensible and fair immigration policy that is humane and embraces the fact that immigration is an economic and social gain for the United States.
The Democrats do not want to "abolish ICE" in order to leave the country's immigration laws unenforced. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a recently created agency. As shown by its many human rights abuses -- putting babies and children in concentration camps; numerous documented cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse of immigrants and refugees -- it requires more oversight and should have at least some of its responsibilities devolved to more responsible and accountable parts of our law enforcement apparatus.
The Democratic Party is not "socialist," in the scare-word sense intended by Trump. It does not advocate that the state should control the means of production or abolish private property. Trump and other conservatives have conjured up a Stalinist version of the Democratic Party closer to cartoon communism than to anything that has ever existed in the mainstream of American politics.
In reality, since the early 1990s, the Democratic Party has consistently moved to the right, becoming more corporatist and beholden to banks and financiers, and less supportive of unions, the working class and the poor. Ever since Bill Clinton's administration, Democrats have been ever more willing to gut the social safety net in the empty hope of somehow outflanking the Republican Party.
As with other right-wing talking points and lies, there is an element of violence and menace to Donald Trump's deployment of the phrase "open-borders socialism."
This is the most ridiculous example: “The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.” This is balderdash. The Washington Post efficiently dismisses Trump's lie: "Venezuela is collapsing after years of near-dictatorship and squandering of oil wealth, but we are unaware of any Democratic leader who has pointed to Venezuela as an economic model."
Donald Trump and the right-wing media as a whole have repeatedly suggested that Democrats and their voters are traitors, "un-American" and a threat to the literal safety of "real Americans," by which they largely mean white conservative Christians. Several days ago, Donald Trump said this at a rally in Topeka, Kansas:
If you allow the wrong people to get into office, things could change. They could change and they could change fast. You don’t hand matches to an arsonist and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob ― and that’s what they’ve become. The Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern.
Trump has gone so far as to suggest that Democrats wants Mexican gangs to come to the United States and rape and kill (white) American women.
As David Neiwert has exhaustively documented in his books "Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right" and the new "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump" this is part of a right-wing strategy of stochastic terrorism where the goal is to encourage violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives, nonwhites, Muslims, gays and lesbians, immigrants and any other group that today's right-wing movement and Republican Party view as the enemy.
Language is lethal: the Southern Poverty Law Center, the FBI, and other groups have documented dozens of deaths and other examples of terrorist and interpersonal political violence committed by members of the American far right during Trump's campaign and through the first two years of his presidency. There has also been a large increase in hate crimes over the same period. In total, Donald has inspired and given permission for right-wing political violence in America.
When these outcomes occur, Donald Trump and other conservatives of course claim ignorance or insist they are the "real victims" of "liberals" and "Democrats" who are trying to unfairly smear their reputations.
Donald Trump's vile USA Today op-ed should be condemned because of its assault on the truth about the Democrats, health insurance and the social safety net. Trump's lying is literally a page torn out of the authoritarian playbook. The editors at USA Today chose to help him circulate it.
But as so often happens with Donald Trump, the outrage and anger misses another part of his overall strategy.
Donald Trump, a lifelong resident of New York, most certainly watched street hustlers run their con with games such as three-card monte on unsuspecting tourists and other marks. It was on the streets of New York (and of course in its boardrooms) that Trump learned to be a political magician.
The repeated moral is that everything I’m doing may be something other than it seems, and it doesn’t matter how brazenly I do it; you’ll still buy it. ... A good magician can be simulating with one hand and dissimulating with the other, and you don’t know which is which.
Donald Trump’s genius for misdirection is to pile so many obvious ruses upon so many ham-handed sleights that the easily fooled parts of his audience are impressed by the audacity, while the more sophisticated parts of his audience, on left and right both, become so fatigued by the constant motion that they stop paying sufficient attention to the core point of the deception. ... The story shows that, very often, the most brazen kinds of misdirection are the most successful, especially in the hands of a brazen performer.
Donald Trump is a human chaos engine. He is also a professional wrestling villain. As he so often does, Trump showed in this week's USA Today op-ed that he is a political magician as well. But none of this is funny or entertaining. The United States is in a constitutional crisis caused by Donald Trump, the Republican Party, their voters and the overly compliant corporate news media.
Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook. MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega • FOLLOW chaunceydevega • LIKE Chauncey DeVega
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