Donald Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be a fascist, a political thug, a cult leader, a pathological liar and a malignant narcissist. Those are just facts; to deny them is like denying the law of gravity. For at least the last six years, a small group of public voices (myself included) have tried to warn the American people and the world about the existential danger that Donald Trump and today's Republican Party represent to American democracy and society. For at least six years, the mainstream news media and the chattering classes have at best ignored us, or decried our warnings as hyperbolic and ridiculous.
This continued even after the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump and his confederates attempted to overturn the 2020 presidential election and effectively end American democracy. Too many of those same voices insisted that a coup could not happen in America, that the dangers were exaggerated and that "the institutions" had held. The attack on the Capitol, they said, was a "spontaneous riot." Trump's attack force was not armed and would not have harmed Mike Pence or prominent Democrats, and the whole coup plot was disorganized and ineffective. An important corollary to that was the presumption that Trump himself was too stupid or inept to engineer or follow through on such a scheme, regardless of what may or may not have transpired on Jan. 6.
There was also a sense, not explicitly stated but evident enough, that those of us who publicly said that Trump was a fascist and an authoritarian, and that his movement would bring ruin to this country, were being disloyal and unpatriotic. We lacked faith in the civil religion of American exceptionalism and its arrogant belief that fascism was not possible in this country, because America and its people — especially its leaders and governing elites — were inherently good.
With the public hearings before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, each installment more damning than the last, it has become ever more clear that Donald Trump and his confederates committed a series of major crimes — and must face the consequences for their actions.
Those of us who repeatedly said Trump was a dangerous fascist were seen as disloyal and unpatriotic, apostates to the civil religion of American exceptionalism.
Tuesday's "surprise" committee hearing was the most explosive of all, confirming beyond any reasonable doubt that violence was a central element of Trump's coup attempt. In the most riveting testimony heard on Capitol Hill in many years, former Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson told the committee (and the world) that Trump and his confederates were aware of the high probability that there would be violence by his followers on Jan. 6, and actively encouraged it. At the highest level, Trump and his allies understood that many of his followers — including members of right-wing paramilitary groups — were armed with lethal weapons, ranging from clubs, knives, bear spray and improvised spears to assault rifles.
According to Hutchinson's testimony, Trump demanded that the Secret Service drop its defenses and allow his followers to gather at the Ellipse for the rally at which he told them to march on the Capitol, where they launched a violent attack in his name, with the obvious goal of nullifying the results of the 2020 election. Hutchinson told the committee that she heard Trump say of his followers, "I don't care that they have weapons. They're not here to hurt me."
In combination with other evidence, Hutchinson's testimony suggests that Trump intended to lead the march on the Capitol personally, and like some fascist leader in a banana republic, claim victory and declare himself the real president and ruler for the foreseeable future. When Trump's Secret Service detail refused to allow him to go to the Capitol, according to Hutchinson's second-hand account, he physically assaulted the driver. As Trump's followers hunted down Vice President Mike Pence with the goal of killing him, Trump not only expressed no remorse but felt gratified.
In the aftermath of the Capitol assault, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other Cabinet members discussed invoking the 25th Amendment and removing him from office.
Zack Beauchamp of Vox summarizes the importance of Hutchinson's testimony, writing that "we now have good reason to believe" that the violence of Jan. 6 "was not accidental but intentional" and that Trump wanted "to use force to disrupt Congress's certification of the election results and thus give him a chance at illegally holding onto the presidency":
It appears, in short, to be a kind of attempted regime change: a coup that we would have no problem describing as such in any other country but our own….
I don't have much faith that the gravity of this charge will change the way Republicans think and act about Donald Trump. Perhaps this time will be different, and it will prove too much for rank-and-file Republicans — and even for craven power-seekers like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. When it comes to Trump's offenses, "this time will be different" has a poor track record.
Yet those of us in the press should not judge the import of Hutchinson's testimony purely by its likely legal and political consequences. One of the most important roles of the press is to tell the truth: to inform the public about what is happening in their country, describing it accurately and honestly to the best of our ability.
And to that end, it is important to be as clear as possible about what Cassidy Hutchinson has done. She told us, in no uncertain terms, that the sitting president at the very least condoned a violent attack that he knew ahead of time was likely — behavior that is, itself, an assault on the foundations of American government. What we do with that, as a democracy, is up to us.
In response to Hutchinson's testimony — just as on Jan. 6 itself and in response to the other House Jan. 6 hearings — the mainstream news media is making much more frequent use of the words "coup" and "fascist" and observing that Trump was and is mentally unwell and "dangerous".
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Once again, leading figures in the mainstream news media are making breathless announcements about how "stunned" or "flabbergasted" they are by the actions of Donald Trump and his co-conspirators. They are also making great use of the royal, all-encompassing "we": We never imagined it could come to this. We can't believe it!
That collective performance by most pundits and other professional smart people rings false to anyone who has been paying an even modest amount of attention to the six years of Trump and the Republican-fascists' and their movement's public assaults on American democracy, freedom, the rule of law, truth, decency and reality itself.
Those who denied the reality of Trumpism are performing this act of being endlessly astonished in an attempt to exonerate themselves in the eyes of history and the public for their collective failures, which included normalizing the Trump disaster, chronic "both-sides-ism," obsessive horserace journalism, and a series of supposedly reasonable excuses for Trump and his regime's aberrant behavior.
At Dan Froomkin's site Press Watch, he offers a useful analysis of the institutional forces at work in political media and how they limit its ability to properly confront the Age of Trump and ascendant neofascism:
As I wrote recently about the New York Times in particular, "The goal of a responsible news organization is not to get people to vote a specific way. But it is to make sure that everyone understands what's at stake."
This whole blessed website of mine is all about how political journalism needs a reset because of its inadequate response to the spread of disinformation and the asymmetry between the two political parties. That asymmetry now extends to whether Americans keep their rights.
It is way past time for political journalists to recognize basic truths, to stop hemming and hawing and trying to split the difference. Maybe now they have finally gotten the message.
Fundamentally, they need to be more honest than journalists have historically been about what's going on….
They need to recognize that the idea of a white Christian authoritarian government is no longer abstract, it is upon us.
And should Republicans win Congress and the White House, there is no indication that they will ever give them back.
If you work in a newsroom, ask your colleagues and your bosses: Do you disagree with any of that? And if not, why are we continuing to do the same things that got us here?
At Washington Monthly, David Atkins echoes Froomkin and even cites him specifically, while writing about the "growing chorus of scholars and commentators" who see a critical problem in "media coverage that treats anti-democracy authoritarians as typical political actor":
Molly Jong-Fast in The Atlantic describes the situation well, noting that the media determines common perceptions and warning that "the mainstream media must not cover these midterms as business as usual, because business as usual could end democracy." The media scholar Jay Rosen and the journalist Dan Froomkin have long argued that if members of the press want democracy to survive, they must stop describing politics in horse race terms and start portraying politics as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
The American mainstream news media is failing at navigating the American fascist nightmare because they are tethered to old landmarks that no longer exist — or if they do still exist, have become essentially useless.
I often wonder what it would have been like to experience reality and history being rewritten in real time, in such dire times and places as Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia or other authoritarian (and totalitarian) regimes. On the other hand, what would it be like to live in the science fiction dystopia of the "Matrix" films, where human reality is a computer simulation and when its code is altered we experience a moment of déjà vu? I have been experiencing such feelings while watching the American mainstream news media respond to the House Jan. 6 hearings.
The mainstream commentariat, the hope peddlers and the professional centrists need what the old-timers describe as a "come-to-Jesus" moment. That would require critical self-reflection and clarity, and far more willingness to confront its own failings than the news media is likely to possess.
Mainstream pundits could really use a "come-to-Jesus" moment. But that would require critical self-reflection, and a willingness to confront their failings.
To expect the American mainstream news media to apologize for their great errors in the Age of Trump is likely too much. But its leaders and other gatekeepers could promise the American people that they will do better going forward and acknowledge that the old ways are now obsolete, and only serve to empower Trumpism and American neofascism. Such a gesture would go a long way toward rebuilding at least some of the legitimacy that the news media has clearly lost.
But that isn't likely either, since one of the foundational rules for becoming a member of the elite pundit class is never to admit you are wrong. Failing upward is a proven career path for such people, especially when they are white and male and come from the moneyed classes and have the right credentials and other bona fides. Thus, there will be no come-to-Jesus moment.
Those of us who have relentlessly kept ringing the alarm bells will not stop. Our audience is those willing to listen, those who are moved to action in defense of democracy, and those who feel some loyalty to that vague thing called "history," which may be the only version of a hopeful future we have left in this losing struggle against American neofascism. How much longer can American democracy survive this assault by the Republican Party and the broader fascist movement? Certainly not the six years that most among the mainstream news media and political class have already wasted by being in denial and otherwise refusing to tell the American people the whole ugly truth about the Age of Trump, the country's democracy crisis, and the growing neofascist threat.
Read more on the explosive Jan. 6 hearings: