Too little, too late: Why the media goes missing when Republicans go on the offensive

The media's belated coverage of the GOP's anti-democracy attacks will never catch up

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 7, 2023 5:46AM (EST)

Donald Trump | Drag queen "Pickle" reads from a book during the Drag Queen Story Hour program at the West Valley Regional Branch Library | Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Drag queen "Pickle" reads from a book during the Drag Queen Story Hour program at the West Valley Regional Branch Library | Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The rise of Trumpism and American neofascism was decades in the making. Contrary to what the hope peddlers, wish casters and professional centrists in the political media would like to believe, the roots of this democracy (and larger cultural crisis) are very deep and the poison they have unleashed is not going away any time soon.

From the beginning of Obama's presidency, with the apparent White backlash to the country's first Black president, to when Trump announced that he would seek to capture the White House in 2016, loud warnings and alarms have been sounding about how neofascism and naked white supremacy are a clear, present and growing danger in this country. The mainstream news media, political class and other elites, however, responded with laughter and shrugs because they lied to themselves, whispering fables into each other's and their own ears, that what Donald Trump and his movement represented could never win power here in America. Of course, they were wrong.

Now Trump is running for president again on a platform of retribution and revenge. Throughout the Age of Trump, the mainstream news media, except for on a few very noteworthy occasions, continued with a perpetual cycle of "shock" and "surprise" and "dismay" at the right's perfidy and attacks on democracy. As I and a few others with a public platform and voice have consistently warned, the political elites and gatekeepers of the approved public discourse cannot and will not admit the true nature of an epistemic crisis because to do so would challenge the legitimacy of their own authority and implicate them in the crisis itself.

Now seven years later, Trump continues to stalk the nation while Ron DeSantis and the other Republican fascists are perfecting and expanding their campaign to kill the country's multiracial pluralistic democracy and turn it into a version of Viktor Orban's Hungary or Vladimir Putin's Russia, what in effect will be an American Apartheid Christofascist plutocracy for the twenty-first century.

While the folksy saying suggests that it is "better to be late than never," such words do not perfectly apply to a struggle against fascism and other anti-democracy forces. In these last seven years, America's political elites and other mainstream voices have lost a great amount of time in the struggle to defend the country's democracy and may not be able to recover.

To wit. The New York Times, which is one of the country's leading journals of public record and elite opinion, featured the following two op-eds last weekend.

In his opinion essay "Take Threats of 'National Divorce' Seriously", David French wrote:

About two weeks ago, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia kicked off a conversation about a "national divorce," and it hasn't really stopped. Greene says she doesn't mean a true national division, but rather an extreme form of federalism, in which red and blue states essentially lived under completely different economic and constitutional structures while maintaining a nominal national union.

The very idea is absurd. It's incompatible with the Constitution. It's dangerous. It's unworkable. It would destroy the economy, dislocate millions of Americans and destabilize the globe. Even in the absence of a civil war — it's beyond unlikely that vast American armies would clash the way they did from 1861 to 1865 — national separation would almost certainly be a violent mess. There is only one way to describe an actual American divorce: an unmitigated disaster, for America and the world.

It could also happen. It's not likely, but it's possible, and we should take that possibility seriously….

And where are we now? Has the fever passed? Not by a long shot. America is in the grips of a simply staggering amount of partisan animosity. As I wrote in my newsletter last week, overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats believe that their opponents are "hateful," "racist," "brainwashed" and "arrogant." Half of the respondents to a 2022 University of California Davis survey agreed that "in the next several years, there will be civil war in the United States," and roughly 20 percent agreed that political violence was "at least sometimes justifiable." A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 34 percent of likely voters (including a plurality of Republicans) think red and blue states need a national divorce.

In their essay "Florida Is Trying to Take Away the American Right to Speak Freely", the Times' Editorial Board warned that:

A homeowner gets angry at a county commission over a zoning dispute and writes a Facebook post accusing a local buildings official of being in the pocket of developers.

A right-wing broadcaster criticizing border policies accuses the secretary of homeland security of being a traitor.

A parent upset about the removal of a gay-themed book from library shelves goes to a school board meeting and calls the board chair a bigot and a homophobe.

All three are examples of Americans engaging in clamorous but perfectly legal speech about public figures that is broadly protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in a case that dates back nearly 60 years, ruled that even if that speech might be damaging or include errors, it should generally be protected against claims of libel and slander. All three would lose that protection — and be subject to ruinous defamation lawsuits — under a bill that is moving through the Florida House and is based on longstanding goals of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The bill represents a dangerous threat to free expression in the United States, not only for the news media, but for all Americans, whatever their political beliefs. There's still time for Florida lawmakers to reject this crude pandering and ensure that their constituents retain the right to free speech.

But as writer and author Jeff Sharlet, who has been one of the most consistent and stalwart voices sounding the alarm about the Age of Trump and ascendant American neofascism, noted on Twitter: 

Even now. The recognition of the moment's peril has been slow moving. When some described Trump in Nov 20 as pursuing a "slow motion coup," the "responsible" folk scoffed. Remember, too, even after J6 resistance to now widely accepted term "insurrection."

Spring of 21, when I began planning reporting for my book The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War, I was almost embarrassed to speak of "civil war." If I did, "responsible" acquaintances said "oh, come on." Now, centrists fret; fascist congresswomen propose.

Sharlet and other alarm sounders (me included) were told that we had "Trump Derangement Syndrome" or were "hysterical" or "alarmists" or "paranoid" or "opportunists". The latter assertion is especially laughable given the personal cost to one's physical, emotional, and psychic health from doing the critical civic work of warning about Trumpism and neofascism and white supremacy when it is so much easier to write about other things that are comparatively trivial, less demanding and utterly disposable.

Moreover, doing the very hard work of consistently warning the American people about the dangers of Trumpism and neofascism and that larger family of threats – as opposed to writing clickbait "hot takes" -- is largely a thankless job.

There are books and stories to be written (and perhaps I will have to write one of them) about the heart attacks, suicides, strokes, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and other maladies and shortened lives more generally that those of us who have chosen to commit ourselves to resisting the rise of Trumpism and neofascism in America and around the world have experienced – and continue to. Trump and his movement may one day dissipate; Our injuries and losses will linger on. We are not the same people anymore.

In the end, the American news media as an industry will not consistently oppose Donald Trump or the larger "conservative" movement because it needs to have access to those voices and personalities to make money. The American news media is also preparing for Trump (or DeSantis or another successor) and the Republican fascists to return to the White House and take full control of Congress and the United States government.

During the last seven years, the New York Times and other leading newspapers and media outlets have had those occasional moments when they rise to the occasion and speak truth to power by warning the American people and the world about the dangers of Trumpism, neofascism and their forces. But those moments are undercut, if not nullified, by how those same news media outlets then give precious space to former Trump regime members, Republican fascists, "conservatives" and others who are enemies of multiracial pluralistic democracy and human progress. Even worse they continue to do reporting and feature other stories that normalize Trump, DeSantis, and the other Republican fascists and their followers.

Public opinion polls and other research shows that the American news media is experiencing a legitimacy crisis. This is both expected and warranted. Why should the American people trust the mainstream news media when one day they are sounding the alarm about Trumpism and neofascism and other illiberal threats to the country's democracy and future and then on the same day (or soon after) are contradicting themselves by featuring -- in the interest of "fairness and balance" -- anti-democracy voices i.e. "conservatives" and neofascists, who they elevate as supposed truth-tellers and essential public voices?

Pro-democracy journalism is not a talking point. It should be a commitment and a vocation. The American news media needs to learn and follow through on that lesson if its warnings about fascism and other great troubles are to be believed. We, the Americans, are running out of time to save our country.

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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Authoritarianism Commentary Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Fascism News Media Republican Party