COMMENTARY

Nothing to see here: Why media keeps downplaying Trump's coup attempt

Trump's cabal of desperate conspirators is more dangerous than ever, but mainstream media tells us to move on

By Chauncey DeVega
Published December 23, 2020 7:00AM (EST)
Sidney Powell, Donald Trump and Mike Flynn (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sidney Powell, Donald Trump and Mike Flynn (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In the original "Star Wars" film — now known as "Episode IV: A New Hope" — Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker and the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0 are stopped by a group of stormtroopers, the elite troops of the evil Empire.

The stormtroopers demand to see Luke and Obi-Wan's identification. With a wave of his hand, Obi-Wan Kenobi uses the mystical power of the Force to dispel their suspicions. Without doubt or hesitation, the stormtroopers say, "You can go about your business. Move along." The heroes escape to continue with their mission. The stormtroopers behave as though nothing unusual has happened.

When Luke Skywalker asks Obi-Wan for an explanation, the wizened Jedi knight explains that the Force can have a powerful influence on the weak-minded.

In their efforts to downplay the dangers of Donald Trump's ongoing coup against democracy, too many members of the commentariat and other "professional smart people" are attempting to use a form of the Jedi mind trick on the American people.

Based on the lack of broad public outrage about Trump's continuing effort to overturn the 2020 election, it would appear that many Americans may in fact be vulnerable to such a ploy.

Over the last few days, the Trump regime's coup attempts have escalated into an ever more desperate and dire stage. The New York Times reported that a cabal of Trump's conspirators met in the Oval Office last Friday where they had a "discussion" about how to overturn the 2020 presidential election by invoking martial law, using a special counsel to invalidate the election, and seizing voting machines to "inspect them" for "irregularities." Of course, the intended result of any such "investigation" would be to manufacture Trump's "re-election."

It should have been the headline in every newspaper and other news media outlet in the United States. But it was buried on page A28 of the print edition of the New York Times, and was also not a leading story in the online edition.

Predictably, Trump raged on Twitter that there were no such discussions and this was all another example of "fake news."

Axios added this additional reporting:

A senior administration official said that when Trump is "retweeting threats of putting politicians in jail, and spends his time talking to conspiracy nuts who openly say declaring martial law is no big deal, it's impossible not to start getting anxious about how this ends." 

"People who are concerned and nervous aren't the weak-kneed bureaucrats that we loathe," the official added. "These are people who have endured arguably more insanity and mayhem than any administration officials in history."

On Monday evening, the Washington Post also reported on Trump's cabal, observing that the president "has turned to a ragtag group of conspiracy theorists, media-hungry lawyers and other political misfits in a desperate attempt to hold on to power after his election loss." Trump's "unofficial election advisory council now includes a felon, adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a White House trade adviser and a Russian agent's former lover."

Once again, this report was not among the leading stories in the online edition

Matters have become so serious that on Friday Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville felt compelled to issue a statement that there "is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election." 

This is not the first time during Trump's reign that military leaders have publicly said they will not interfere in elections. As with most other things about Trump's presidency, such an announcement has no obvious precedent in American history.

Why have the chattering classes with a few notable exceptions, continued to minimize Trump's coup attempt?

It is easier to mock and deride the Trump regime's coup attempt as being "lazy," "failed" or "incompetent," or to describe it in some other liberal-schadenfreude language than to speak of an on-going national emergency. Likewise, calling Trump's coup attempt just a "grift" or a "con job" also minimizes the danger to the country and ignores the kleptocratic aspects of authoritarian and fascist regimes.

Moreover, it is comforting for the mainstream news media to bask in the glow of Joe Biden's victory and the absence of widespread of political violence and then to declare that democracy endures and Trump's coup attempt is a joke.

By necessity, such high-minded talk excludes Trump and his allies' efforts to suppress the votes of nonwhite people, slow down the mail and otherwise interfere with democracy.

Members of the "Church of the Savvy" and other hope-peddlers and stenographers of current events have an instinctive revulsion to speaking too much truth to power. As a group they have refused until very recently to accurately describe Donald Trump and his regime as being fascistic or authoritarian. Likewise, the mainstream news media and other public voices have been reluctant to state that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. Instead, they have used euphemisms: The president "misspoke," or "distorted" or "misrepresented" the facts.

Despite abundant evidence, these same voices still refuse to consistently describe Donald Trump as a racist or a white supremacist. All of this reflects a desperate desire to return to perceived "normalcy," as embodied by the incoming Biden administration.

Part of this "normalcy bias" is a function of legitimate fear and anxiety, and an instinct for self-preservation given Trump and his movement's violent threats against reporters and journalists.

This is an example of "organized forgetting": The Trump regime and this version of American neofascism have traumatized not just the American people but many of the country's elites as well. Both groups, albeit in different ways, are deeply invested in reassuring fictions about our "healthy institutions" and "the democratic system." Thus, the compulsion to rapidly forget the horrors of the Trump regime and embrace the hopeful possibilities of the Biden administration.

In practice, this means that the rot in our civic, political, and cultural institutions that produced the Trump regime remains, but has been whitewashed over.

For the mainstream news media, this organized forgetting also involves a rewriting of history in which journalists did not consistently fail in their responsibilities as guardians of democracy by normalizing Trump's politically aberrant behavior, and by downplaying the threat posed to American democracy by his movement. As a practical matter, when the country's mainstream political voices finally started speaking some truth to power during the final months of Trump's first term, they sounded insincere. Where were those criticisms before? Why are they suddenly speaking up now, after Biden has been elected? What explains this sudden "courage," or the force of revelation about the dangers of Trumpism?

In many ways, the American media is stuck in a feedback loop of credibility failure, one which its leading figures largely created. The Age of Trump was merely a tipping point that exposed long-standing institutional problems.

As media scholar Eric Alterman observes at The Nation:

We know that our democracy is at stake and that the country may be on the precipice of significant political violence. If ever the mainstream media needed to shake its self-destructive addiction to false equivalence, now is the time....

Now those same network executives need to decide which side they are on: democracy or fascist rebellion. Network bookers should refuse to amplify the words of anyone who denies Biden's victory without immediately pointing out that that person is a liar. Nothing is "disputed." Nothing is "controversial." Nothing is "lacking in evidence." There is only truth or lies….

This should be simple. The news divisions of the major networks, together with CNN (and to a lesser extent, the liberal-branded MSNBC), have all sacrificed much of their credibility during the Trump presidency. They should welcome the opportunity to win it back.

Ultimately, the mainstream media's refusal to highlight the true danger of Trump's ongoing coup attempt, and the depths of the country's democratic crisis more generally, are a symptom of a much broader denial of truth in our society.  

In his latest column for Scheerpost — republished by Salon — Chris Hedges warns:

One of the lessons I learned from covering wars and revolutions as a foreign correspondent is that the political, economic and cultural systems that are erected by any society are very fragile…. We cannot use the word hope if we refuse to face the truth. All hope rooted in self-delusion is fantasy. We must lift the filter from our eyes to see the danger before us. We must heed the warnings of our own prophets. We must destroy the centers of power that lure us and our children, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, to certain doom. The walls, daily, are closing in around us. The radical evil we face is as real under Trump as it will be under Biden. And if this radical evil is not smashed, then the world ahead will be one of torment and mass death.

There is less than a month remaining before Joe Biden becomes president of the United States. These next weeks, however, will be some of the most unpredictable and dangerous in the country's history. As time winds down for Donald Trump, he and his cabal will become even more desperate, dangerous and destructive. Like other authoritarians and fascist leaders, Trump will attack the country and its people as revenge for being "disloyal" to him.

The American media in this moment of crisis can choose to tell the truth, which may at least help to prepare the public for the struggle necessary to reclaim the country's democracy. Or it can remain in denial about the long struggle ahead to rehabilitate our democratic institutions and public life.

The first choice could also begin to address the American news media's crisis of legitimacy. The second will make that crisis exponentially worse.


Chauncey DeVega

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.

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