America remains in the grip of an existential democracy crisis: Donald Trump's Republican-fascists and their movement are on the march, winning victory after victory while the Democrats and the "resistance" are hunkered down, doing little if anything to fight back.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Yet the gatekeepers among the American news media appear more interested in stories about Nicki Minaj's cousin's possibly imaginary friend, who supposedly suffered swollen testicles because of the coronavirus vaccine — supposedly damaging his marital prospects — than in doing the hard work of advocating for democracy and real accountability.
America is literally amusing itself to death, even as we learn further details about how Donald Trump and his agents attempted a coup to overthrow American democracy after his defeat in the 2020 election. The newest "revelation": Step-by-step plans for this coup were outlined in a memo written by right-wing lawyer John Eastman, who became a key Trump adviser during the latter days of his presidency.
Some of the most influential voices in America's mainstream news media — with the notable exceptions of CNN and the Washington Post — have largely ignored this story. At Mother Jones, Tim Murphy offers these details of Eastman's memo, and the media's non-response:
In six concise bullet-points, the memo outlined a process by which Vice President Mike Pence could use his powers on January 6 to throw out the electors from seven states that President Joe Biden won in the 2020 election. The plan counted on Republicans in those states to submit competing sets of electors, based on the false and fabricated premise that Trump had somehow won those states … .
Not knowing for sure what happens when you dissociate "peaceful transfer of power" from "a society entirely predicated on it," I sort of think this is a pretty big deal. This is a break-the-glass moment, as some have said, only someone else already broke the glass and took the axe and is running around with it.
But it is not such a big deal, apparently, if you watch network TV news. On Wednesday, Media Matters' Matt Gertz reported that the total number of minutes devoted to the story on either the morning or evening editions of ABC, NBC, or CBS News in the first two days after the memo was published was zero. "In fact," Gertz wrote, "the only national network broadcasts to mention Trump's coup memo were the late-night variety shows hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers."
In a normal world, the "Eastman memo" would be infamous by now, the way "Access Hollywood" became the popular shorthand in 2016 for the damning recording of Donald Trump's bragging about groping women.
But it's a good bet that most people have never even heard of the Eastman memo.
That says something troubling about how blasé the mainstream press has become about the attempted coup in the aftermath of the 2020 election — and how easily a coup could succeed next time.
The news media gatekeepers would likely defend their choice to focus on Nicki Minaj's tall tale with an argument that stories about celebrities provide a way to pivot to larger issues of public concern. In essence, that a pop star's Nicki uninformed comments about vaccines offer a "teachable moment".
But the more basic and more plausible explanation is that the American people are attracted to juvenile and immature distractions, and that those impulses drive the mainstream news media's ad revenues. Those concerns should wither away in the face of an unprecedented democracy crisis. Of course, that is unlikely to happen.
The news media fulfills an important agenda-setting function in a society, and this is especially true in a democracy where freedom of the press is foundational. As a practical matter, the fourth estate tells the public what they should pay attention to and how they should think about it. In that context, elevating a story about a celebrity's perhaps-invented vaccine anecdote over the details of a coup plot offers one more indictment of an American news media that continues to normalize neofascism.
Moreover, the news media's evasion of any sustained conversation about the Republican-fascist coup attempt reflects the pathologies of an emotionally immature society, incapable of facing the crises it is now experiencing. Given that, how will American society possibly confront or address enormous challenges such as the global climate disaster, the continuing pandemic, mass shootings and gun violence, wealth and income inequality, profound technological disruptions to labor and the economy, racism and white supremacy, right-wing terrorism and other violence, dire threats to the rule of law and the constitutional order and so much more?
America's democracy crisis reveals another frightening truth about our culture of distraction and immaturity: There are some in the media who actually yearn for Donald Trump's return to national office. For many in the media elites — who believe themselves to be largely insulated from the day-to-day consequences of fascism, white supremacy, and other antisocial and anti-human behavior — Trump was a source of huge profits and heightened prestige.
Media critic Eric Boehlert explored this in a recent newsletter, writing that while "American democracy is teetering increasingly close to the abyss," the media "continues to play a dangerous game by refusing to acknowledge the danger":
Even in the wake of the newest revelations of how Trump and his team aggressively tried to engineer a coup by invalidating millions of votes last year, he's still being normalized in the day-to-day coverage, as the press eagerly awaits his return to the campaign trail. ("When Will Trump Answer the Big 2024 Question?" the New York Times asked.)
There's nothing Trump could do at this point that would invalidate him in the eyes of the political press, and that includes him shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue….
He remains a captivating topic who provides endless angles of intrigue and who is treated as a looming star of American politics. Forget about that coup stuff; Trump's lawless, violent mob that rampaged inside the U.S. Capitol for hours, knocking officers unconscious and destroying offices of Democratic members. Whatever shock Trump's deadly insurrection initially generated among Beltway journalists has since worn off.
Annoyed by President Joe Biden's "boring" administration, journalists seem eager for the chaos and clicks that Trump creates — no defeated candidate has ever been showered with as much attention as he has.
Boehlert continues by observing that "the D.C. press can barely contain its excitement at the idea of the 2020 loser running again," adding that "everyone knows if he wins a second term, every minute of every White House press briefing would be carried live and in full, just as they were for his first term. ... A dangerous autocrat who's devoted to wrecking the American election process is waiting in the wings to become the GOP nominee in 2024, and the Beltway press can't wait."
In other words, too many in the media refuse to focus on the serious threats to American democracy and society embodied by Donald Trump and the neofascist movement, largely because they find the spectacle so enthralling.
I continue to ask myself what kind of movie this is. What version of the simulation are we stuck in as America continues to slip deeper into fascist unreality?
Perhaps it's as simple and complex as Mike Judge's 2006 film "Idiocracy," where the ignorant masses live in a full-on corporate dictatorship, where the most popular movie in the country consists of a naked butt farting on screen. Or perhaps America has surrendered to the prescient warnings of the 2018 film "Sorry to Bother You," where the most popular reality show on television features contestants who allow themselves to be physically abused and otherwise humiliated.
As the country succumbs to fascism, the American people, for the most part, are like the moviegoers in the cover image of the classic edition of Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle," sitting transfixed in 3D glasses, seduced by the images on the screen and numb to the world outside. Trump's agents, allies, and followers have set the theater on fire, but to this point the audience hasn't noticed and likely would not even care if they did.