There were many things that we thought would go away when Donald Trump left office but didn't. Somewhere near the top of the list is the interminable debate over whether ignoring him will make him disappear. There really is no answer to this question, alas. Team Ignore is right that the media fascination with Trump only helped him amplify his message and amass an army of trolls. Team Pay Attention, however, is right to note that the rise of American fascism that Trump represents is a story much bigger than Donald Trump himself, and that the only chance we have of stopping it rests on an awareness of what's going on.
This article originally appeared at Salon.
This debate is rearing its head again because Trump, who has been banned from Facebook and Twitter, has been angling for ways to keep injecting the Big Lie — that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election — into the public discourse. In many ways, he's succeeding. The entire Republican Party has been reorganized around the Big Lie, marshaling all its resources to cover up Trump's attempted insurrection and pass state-level laws restricting voting, using the Big Lie as their excuse. In addition, a series of surrogates like Michael Flynn and Mike Lindell have been holding events where they stoke the base's anger and unsubtly sow enthusiasm for another violent uprising.
Clearly, however, this is not enough for Trump, since his epic narcissism demands that the media focus almost exclusively on him and his personality, not on all these other people acting on his behalf. But without Twitter, which was his favored medium for getting attention in the same way someone puking in your lap gets attention, he's been struggling. He got Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., ousted from the GOP leadership, but it was her picture, not his, that accompanied most of the stories about it. Stories about QAnon nuttery are more likely to show the "QAnon shaman" than Trump himself. Stories about his various kooky surrogates tend to focus headlines and pictures on that motley crew, not on Trump himself.
Despite his best efforts to control the news cycle, Trump is losing his grip. Mentions of Trump in national media coverage have dramatically fallen off. Trump's social media mentions have gone down by 91% since January. His effort to recreate his Twitter power by starting a blog was a humiliating failure. Without Twitter forcing his lies and invective into the timeline of pundits and influencers, who would then retweet them in outrage, most of his nonsense is simply being ignored. Within less than a month, Trump gave up on his blog and shut it down.
It is likely no coincidence that right around that time, stories based on claims by anonymous sources "close to Trump" (which often means Trump himself) started to tick up. It began when New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, a longtime outlet for Trump "leaks", tweeted that Trump has been telling people close to him that he believes he'll be reinstated as president in August. This tweet echoed a conspiracy theory from the QAnon and Q-adjacent world, and coincided with an uptick in far-right chatter about how the American right should look to Myanmar's February military coup for inspiration.
After Haberman's tweet, the Washington Post strengthened this narrative with a story about how Trump is "increasingly consumed with the notion that ballot reviews pushed by his supporters around the country could prove that he won" and is peddling the idea that such "audits" — which are deliberately messy and nonsensical affairs — "could result in his return to the White House this year." The Daily Beast confirmed that "the ex-president had begun increasingly quizzing confidants about a potential August return to power." This reporting gave Fox News all the excuse they needed to amplify the message. Even though that came in the form of Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, denying the reporting, the end result was another round of news stories reinforcing the basic concepts: August is the month. A violent coup. Trump's miraculous reinstatement.
This is entirely too similar to the way Trump got the message out to his followers to stage a revolt on Jan. 6, through winking and nudging. So far, the big difference is that no exact date and location, as far as I can tell, has been established for a MAGA uprising.
As much as liberals resist the idea that Trump has any wits at all, what he's doing is not exactly mysterious. He wants to get this particular message out, vaguely claiming that a glorious revolution will restore him to power later this year, and he's using the mainstream press to do it. To make things worse, he's exploiting the liberal desire to point at him and laugh to spread the message further. Every time a liberal shares one of these stories and calls Trump and his followers "delusional" for thinking that some extra-constitutional return to power is possible, they help spread the word — while also reminding Trump supporters how "owned" liberals would be if there really were a "storm" that swept Trump back into the White House in August.
Hence the conundrum that faces the media. On one hand, letting a wannabe fascist manipulate journalists to spread his message inciting sedition and violence seems like a huge mistake. On the other hand, it's clearly newsworthy that a former president who already incited one insurrection is busy cooking up another one, or at least encouraging others to do so. Attention aids Trump's strategy. But ignoring the tide of American fascism isn't exactly a smart move, either. Arguably, the unwillingness to take such chatter seriously is one reason the Jan. 6 insurrectionists got as far as they did. Furthermore, one major reason Trump was unable to steal the 2020 election is because progressives took his efforts seriously from the beginning, inspired in large part by journalists who took the threat seriously from the beginning.
The baseline premise of journalism is simple: Tell the truth about what's going on. So while it is absolutely nerve-wracking to see Trump use the press to communicate the when (August) and the what (another coup attempt) that he longs for to his followers, it is hard to fault the journalists involved. A former president is plotting for ways to overthrow the government! If that isn't news, what is?
No matter how you slice it, this conundrum is only going to get worse over the summer. Trump is reportedly bringing back his rallies, and while they're being advertised as a "comeback" for his potential 2024 campaign, the safe bet is that the focus will largely be on 2020 and Trump's false claims that he should be president right this minute. The rallies will be newsworthy. But it will also be true that if the press ignores the rallies, as they ignored Trump's blog, it'll be difficult for him to keep the incitement going. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but it also is the best illumination. Since ignoring Trump into oblivion does not seem possible, perhaps the best and only thing to do is to pay close attention — and prepare to keep up the resistance.