The media is underestimating Donald Trump — again

How many expeditions into Trumplandia will the media have to take?

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 3, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Van Andel Arena on March 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The American mainstream news media continues to send expeditions out into the hinterlands of Trumplandia. Along this journey anthropological dispatches are written from bowling alleys, diners, gun ranges, flea markets, swap meets, supermarkets, churches, car shows, baseball games, rallies, trailer parks, and other special sites where the denizens of Trumplandia gather. The American mainstream news media is on a quest of sorts to find some type of Rosetta Stone or Holy Grail that will grant them access to secret knowledge about the ways of the cult of Donald Trump.

The mainstream news media has a problem: They will never be successful in their quest. Why? Because they are asking the wrong questions. Moreover, even if they found the correct answer, they would likely reject it because it is not what they were looking for.

The Washington Post recently sent its reporters on another expedition to Trumplandia. Here is what they "discovered" this time:

"I and a lot of other Republicans who were supportive of President Trump are becoming less and less supportive," Jaster said. "Not because I'm a 'Never Trumper.' I just don't believe Trump is the best person to move this party forward."

That distinction is reshaping the Republican base as the 2024 presidential primary kicks off. The MAGA vs. RINO dichotomy that defined the GOP for much of the last eight years is increasingly obsolete. In its place, a new dynamic emerged from interviews with more than 150 Trump supporters across five pivotal electoral states. In between Republicans who remain firmly committed or opposed to the former president, there's now a broad range of Trump supporters who, however much they still like him, aren't sure they want him as the party's next nominee.

The foremost reason is electability. Even Republicans who said they still supported Trump and believed his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen acknowledged doubts on whether he could defeat President Biden or another Democrat in 2024. ...

In most interviews, fatigue with Trump was not a break with Trumpist politics. While these voters expressed interest in someone less divisive, they showed little appetite for more moderate policies or messaging — a combination many saw possible with DeSantis.

Echoing the Washington Post, Politico has this new reporting on Trump and his relationship with the Republican Party:

Rep. Thomas Massie was so eager for Donald Trump's endorsement in a contested primary three years ago that he ran TV ads targeted at the then-president in Florida to win his support.

Today, Massie is all but shunning Trump and his comeback campaign. In fact, the Kentucky Republican attended a retreat last weekend for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"Ron DeSantis is the best governor there ever was," he said when asked if he planned to endorse in the 2024 presidential primary.

The Kentucky Republican is far from the only one-time Trump ally who's staying away from the former president, despite his lead in every major poll so far. Some are looking more seriously at his would-be rivals like DeSantis or Gov. Nikki Haley. Others are intentionally staying on the sidelines but privately hoping he stumbles. That sentiment is deepening throughout the Republican Party — but no segment of the party illustrates the shift as vividly as the House GOP, whose members almost universally backed Trump in both previous races. ...

The widespread hesitancy would not be notable in another era — or if a former president was not already in the race. But in this instance, the lack of public support is perhaps the clearest sign yet that members feel Trump's support is no longer a prerequisite for political survival. Trump's vengeance is now barely registering as a threat, after years as one of the most dominant forces in politics.

"I'm the last person that would worry about that," Massie said of possible retribution for not supporting Trump. "It backfires. You can't attack too many of your own party."

Of course, the presidential primaries don't begin for a year, and the field has yet to fully take shape.

In interviews with nearly 20 House Republicans, many cited the uncertainty in the field as reason to keep quiet for now.

The Washington Post and Politico reinforce the conclusions reached by other leading publications, pollsters, and mainstream politics watchers about the current state of Trump and his 2024 prospects. In this consensus narrative, Trump's base of support is supposedly weakening and there is infighting within the Republican Party about who will be the 2024 presidential candidate and the overall direction of the party and "conservative" movement. Trump fatigue is real.

Trump's personality and charisma as compared to likely rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also an important factor. To that point, former Republican consultant Rick Wilson told the Guardian last year:

"I know that the Republicans who right now are acting very bold and the donors who are acting very frisky — as Trump starts winning primaries, they will bend the knee, they will break, they will fall, they will all come back into line. …

"Right now they're all talking so much shit: 'I'm not going to get with Trump. I'm going to be with the hot new number, DeSantis.' When DeSantis gets his ass handed to him, when he gets his clock cleaned in a debate or forum or just by Trump grinding away at him, eating him alive mentally for weeks on end, and suddenly Donald Trump's numbers start posting up again, all the conservative thinkers who are right now like, 'We will never vote for Trump again, we have integrity!' will find themselves some excuse. 'Well, you know, we don't like Trump's tweets, but otherwise it's pure communism!'

"It's all bullshit, it's all a fucking game, and that game is going to play out in a way that does not result in the outcome that the donor class thinks they're going to get."

In addition, horserace predictions and attempts to handicap the 2024 presidential election are very premature. Donald Trump has not even begun to focus his attacks on potential rivals or campaign in earnest. Given the potential legal troubles swirling around Trump he may not even be in the race next year, instead preferring to play the spoiler or kingmaker – or better yet a berserker.

One should not overlook, and by doing so underestimate, Trump's potential popularity and competitiveness in the 2024 presidential race — even after his political crime spree. Trump received more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. Republican voters are so hostile to Biden and any potential Democratic presidential candidate that they will overwhelmingly support Trump again no matter what.

Donald Trump is not a man, he is an idea.

Trump's followers are deeply compelled to Trumpism and what he represents, the freedom and permission to break norms, engage in history-breaking revolutionarily destructive projects, and openly hate. They want more of it all, not less.

As seen with the Washington Post's recent story about Trumplandia, and the mainstream news media more generally, their biggest failing in the quest for truth about Donald Trump and this era is very much a function of training, habit and how that institution and its members conceptualize politics and society. The truth is that Trumpism, with or without Trump,  – the latter is perhaps even more preferable if the poison can be delivered by someone more "appealing" and well-coiffed like a Ron DeSantis.

The American mainstream news media's approaches to writing and reporting and truth-telling are obsolescent in a time of ascendant fascism and a democracy crisis. Horserace journalism, inside the beltway access journalism, bothsidesism, and "objectivity" and "fairness" are inadequate to the task and at this point, seven years into the Age of Trump, willfully so.

The news media can send as many expeditions out into Trumplandia as they want (or talk to Republican Party insiders) but they will never find the answers they are looking for – or more importantly what the American people really need to know.

Thus, the great incompatibility and incongruence: Fascism, and the battle to defeat it, is first and foremost a struggle over ideas and emotions. Fascism, fake right-wing populism, and other forms of authoritarianism are a force that gives its followers meaning. The tools and techniques of normal politics as practiced by the mainstream news media are insufficient to the challenge.

For example, in his book "On Tyranny", historian Timothy Snyder says the following about the rise of Nazism and the role of emotions, reason, and the charismatic personality of the demagogue:

One of his former students implored him to "abandon yourself to your feelings, and you must always focus on the Fuhrer's greatness, rather than on the discomfort you are feeling at present". Twelve years later, after all the atrocities, and at the end of a war that Germany had clearly lost, an amputated solider told (Victor) Klemperer (a literary scholar of Jewish origins) that Hitler "has never lied yet. I believe in Hitler." The final mode is misplaced faith. It involves the sort of self-deifying claims the president made when he said, "I alone can solve it" or "I am your voice". When faith descends from heaven to earth in this way, no room remains for the small truth of our individual discernment and experience.

What terrified Klemperer was the way that this transition seemed permanent. Once truth had become oracular rather than factual evidence was irrelevant".

In their book "Moving Beyond Fear" Charles Derber and Yale Magrass offer these insights:

Hitler's success in winning power helps demonstrate one of the Right's great strengths: its explicit and powerful use of emotion, which has often historically triumphed over the Left's appeal to rationality. Hitler didn't entirely reject reason – a few could respond to it – but relied on emotion to win the masses:

I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.

In the introduction to his new book Insurrections, social critic Henry Girioux highlights the role of cultural pathologies in the rise of Trumpism, neofascism, and the larger culture of cruelty:

The destruction of democracy and its institutions will result from the increasing attack on ethical standards, the undermining of truth, and a mass consciousness that supports violence as a central weapon for social change. Accelerating this breakdown of democracy is the disabling of memory, the mass production of ignorance, and the weakening of the collective imagination. …

While the mainstream media have failed to see the signs, authoritarianism's historical political, racial, and cultural dynamics have become more visible, taking on a seditious and coarsening reality as they have emerged in boldly rhetorical, increasingly violent, and terrifying forms. …

Trump's attack on the foundations of democratic rule received enormous legitimation from his base and political party, and it was deeply rooted in a culture that normalized violence as a political tool while becoming increasingly cruel, frighteningly intolerant, and unabashedly disdainful of democracy. Even more disturbing is how Trump's lies, racism, and attacks on his enemies attracted a broad swath of individuals of different ages and occupations, living in different parts of the country.

In the end, the news media can send as many expeditions out into Trumplandia as they want (or talk to Republican Party insiders) and they will never find the answers they are looking for – or more importantly what the American people really need to know.

Trumpism and American neofascism are not new. They were born hundreds of years ago here in America with the genocide of First Nations people and the enslavement of Black people, crimes against humanity committed in the name of "democracy", "freedom", and "progress". That story of deep rot and its present-day poisonous bloom is what the American mainstream news media should be pursuing and amplifying. But such truths are too dangerous, too scary, and will likely not generate enough clicks, ad revenue, and attention to propel the careers of the journalists and reporters who dare to say such things (and their editors as well) to great heights.

Instead, more expeditions to Trumplandia will be launched in earnest.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Election Fascism News Media Republican Party