Throughout the Age of Trump, the American mainstream news media has sounded increasingly like a broken record, repeatedly describing Donald Trump's innumerable misdeeds as "unimaginable" or "unthinkable" or "shocking." This approach clearly attracts clicks and advertising dollars. By comparison, Joe Biden is boring. His administration has been generally competent and free of scandal. Perversely, that's one of the main reasons why the mainstream media has turned against him.
With the House Jan. 6 committee hearings, the media circus has played out true to form, adding the term "revelation" to its recirculating vocabulary for describing Donald Trump and his confederates and their documented crimes. In reality, there is nothing truly "shocking" about the descriptions of Trump's conduct, and the "revelations" emerging from the committee hearings are hardly biblical epiphanies. That conclusion should be obvious for media professionals who are paid to follow public matters. Donald Trump is utterly transparent and predictable — and has unapologetically been that way for all of his public life.
Trump's presidency, his 2021 coup attempt and the imminent threat of his 2024 presidential campaign have amplified to the extreme everything that's wrong with him — and, more importantly, with the culture that spawned his fascist movement and political cult.
As president, Trump committed acts of democide that killed at least a million Americans through his negligent, if not criminal, response to the coronavirus pandemic. He repeatedly threatened, well before November 2016, not to accept the outcome of any election where he was not the winner. He has repeatedly demonstrated white supremacist views and fascist tendencies, both in his public policies and in his personal life. Mental health professionals have concluded that he is likely a sociopath if not a psychopath, as well as a malignant narcissist and compulsive liar.
Trump was Impeached twice for a variety of crimes surrounding his attempts to subvert the 2020 election, culminating in acts of de facto treason and seditious conspiracy around the attempted coup of 2021. He conducts himself like a mafia boss, using violence, intimidation, fraud and other antisocial behavior to get and keep power as a way to enriching himself and his inner circle.
At his rallies and other gatherings, Trump continues to incite political violence, and has moved closer to calling for a white-on-Black race war. Given that context, there is nothing truly surprising about Trump's words or deeds. While Trump is cruel, vicious, scheming and small-minded, in his own twisted way he is an honest and transparent person.
The ringmasters, barkers and star performers of the mainstream news media circus are not actually surprised or shocked by the "revelations" about Trump's vile behavior, and that is as true now as it was before the House Jan. 6 hearings began. To some degree, the performance of such emotions is seen as expected or obligatory — and it's a way to lure the public into the tent with the promise of some great reveal.
In my recent conversation with former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, he had this to say about the media circus:
I tend to believe most of them are not shocked or surprised. They're saying such things for effect and ratings. You are talking about corporate news media. There are things they are going to allow to be said and things that are off limits. The hosts and guests and reporters you are talking about are not dumb people. They're not shocked by Trump and the Republicans and all the bad things they do.
For prominent media figures to admit that the entire system is in profound crisis, and that Trump is a leading symptom of that crisis, is effectively verboten.
There is a range of reasons why so many members of the mainstream media — the hope-peddlers, happy-pill sellers and professional smart people — obsessively keep repeating that Donald Trump's crimes are shocking and unbelievable revelations that no one could have imagined. First of all, the major corporate media is part of "the system," not outside it, and is inevitably aligned with power. For prominent media figures to admit that the system is in profound crisis — as epitomized by the rise of Trump, the tens of millions of people who voted for him and a major political party that has embraced fascism — is effectively verboten.
A central element of maintaining the fiction that American democracy and its institutions are strong is to advance the narrative that Trump and the other Republican-fascists are outliers, who remain "unthinkable" in the world's greatest democracy.
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There are other institutional and cultural rules at work: A successful career in the mainstream news media requires not getting too far ahead of the target audience and public opinion — as conventional wisdom perceives such things. So being a professional moderate or centrist tends to be a lucrative career track, and feigning shock and surprise in an effort to appear relatable is an important element of that pose. In that context, telling uncomfortable or frightening truths about American society, which of necessity may reflect the complicity of the American people at large, is to invite career suicide.
As a practical matter, one is expected to "read the room" and stay close to the purported views and ideals of the "average" American, rather than telling inconvenient truths at inopportune moments. By implication, the mainstream media is expected to lead the public to the truth gently, as if telling children about death, rather than speaking to them plainly like adults. That kind of mass infantilization is one of the principal ways by which fascism and other authoritarian systems take hold and spread across a society.
There are psychological explanations as well: To pretend that Trump and his cabal, and the larger Republican-fascist movement, is in any way "shocking" or "surprising" is a defensive behavior rooted in fear. In a series of interviews for Salon, I have asked leading psychologists and other mental health professionals about exactly this question: Why are so many Americans, especially members of the media and political classes, in such denial about Donald Trump and the Republican-fascist movement, more than six years after its emergence? Why do they keep pretending to be surprised by the obvious?
In March of this year, Dr. Justin Frank told me this:
They want to stop thinking about it. Those people who email you because they don't want you to talk about Donald Trump are afraid of confronting their inner self. They do not want to face who they are deep inside. Such people also don't want to think about the other real nature of America — that we also have fantasies of violence and revenge….
It is a very scary thing to be forced to confront our own violent and destructive impulses. That is especially true in this country, because many Americans don't want to confront the fact that it is their fellow Americans who are making such threats. It is a deep type of denial and fantasy. That also explains why so many people in the American news media won't talk about Trump's threats of violence and killing and destruction. It scares them too, so they normalize or even dismiss the deadly seriousness of his threats.
Dr. Lance Dodes offered these insights in an interview published last month:
Most of us would like to believe that there are benevolent powerful authorities at work in the world, leaders who are loving and kind. In this country, many of us were brought up to believe that the leaders of the country are fine people who are looking out for us. We want to believe it. When a truly evil person came to seize power, the country, the free press, was unable to react appropriately, and we still see people who are "shocked."
Just over two weeks ago, Dr. Mark Goulston made similar observations:
The reason they're shocked is because a person cannot be partially sociopathic or narcissistic. It's a slippery road when you allow sociopaths or narcissists to ride over you unchecked. The denial, and giving such people the benefit of the doubt, just encourages them.
People on the left, the Democrats especially, are also afraid to acknowledge the dark parts of their personalities, such as anger and rage. Such feelings fill them with shame. Therefore, they deny to themselves that Donald Trump and other such sociopaths and narcissists are so dangerous.
After the eighth Jan. 6 committee hearing — apparently the last of this eventful summer — I asked Dr. Frank if he had further thoughts on the continuing narrative about "revelations." He responded by email:
The media, whether right-wing, conservative or progressive have one psychological characteristic in common: denial. But denial is a complex defense. The right wing fits its most common definition: denial of reality, of facts and even of perception. Fox denies the fact of the attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021. It didn't happen, they say. Conservative mainstream media, like the major TV networks deny the palpable dangers of the coup. They deny the fragility of our own government institutions. The more progressive media (CNN and MSNBC) have changed to some extent because of the hearings. They once denied Trump's central responsibility for the coup and then denied its destructiveness and that it could still happen in another way — like electing [Ron] DeSantis.
The pretending to be shocked is a pretending to themselves, not simply grandstanding. It feeds their need to deny responsibility. All media, from Fox to MSNBC, is owned by large corporations. They ultimately deaden a fundamental need shared in some degree by all Americans — the need to pursue truth despite a conflicting need to deny it.
Reporters, commentators, pundits, and other people who have a public voice and use words for a living have a great responsibility in a democracy to help the public understand complex matters so they can in turn make responsible decisions about politics and society. Part of this responsibility to speak truth to power requires using the clearest and most precise language.
We should note that the root meaning of "revelation" is to gain information or knowledge through divine or supernatural means. A "revelation" in that sense is supposed to be a great truth that is potentially life-changing or world-changing, as in the Book of Revelation, the hallucinatory final text of the New Testament.
When someone claims that evidence of Trump's crimes is a "revelation," that should provoke a moment of critical self-reflection: If this is truly a revelation, how should I change my behavior? What responsibilities follow from this?
When someone claims that public evidence regarding Donald Trump's crimes and generally evil behavior, or those of his confederates and the larger Republican-fascist movement, is a "revelation," that should provoke a moment of critical self-reflection: Is this actually a revelation? If it is, have I modified my behavior and expectations accordingly? What follows from this revelation, in terms of my responsibilities to the public?
Responsible citizens who strive to live an ethical and morally grounded life, and who are committed to secular humanism and overall decency, should never stop being outraged at injustice. But to pretend that such injustice, or related crimes against society, are shocking or surprising when they are not is in many ways to do the work of iniquity rather than confronting it.
Perpetual shock and surprise, especially when feigned, can lead to learned helplessness, passivity and surrender when bold proactive actions are required. Saving American democracy from the Republican-fascists and the larger white right, if that is still possible, will require a fearless commitment to clarity, in speech and action, from both the news media and the American people.