Media suddenly shifts its tone on Trump — but that's not courage, it's cowardice

Donald Trump has made history again.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him a second time because of his role in inciting violence before the coup attempt last Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol. Trump is now the only president to have been impeached twice, and could easily have been impeached on other occasions for his many other crimes against democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law.

All 222 House Democrats, along with 10 Republicans, voted to impeach Trump. The Senate must now hold a trial, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not reconvene the chamber before next Tuesday, one day before Joe Biden's inauguration next Tuesday. So it appears likely that the incoming Democratic-controlled Senate will hold Trump's second impeachment trial. Some Republican senators appear likely to vote for conviction, but 17 would be required — along with all 50 Democrats and affiliated independents — to reach a verdict that might bar Trump from holding future federal office. No president has ever been tried after leaving office, and no president has ever been convicted by the Senate.

By largely refusing to join Democrats in voting to impeach Donald Trump, House Republicans sent several messages to their followers, the American people and the world more generally. These include:

  • Right-wing political violence is acceptable in the United States — as long as it advances the goals and objectives of the Republican Party and right-wing movement.
  • Coup attempts and other efforts to subvert elections or usurp democratic outcomes are now acceptable — if pursued by Republicans and members of the far right against their enemies.
  • The United States is no longer the world's leading democracy. If American fascism continues to thrive — Trump won at least 10 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 — the country's liberal democracy (however imperfect) is in danger of degenerating into what political scientists have described as "competitive authoritarianism," "inverted totalitarianism" or "managed democracy."

In all, the Republican Party has shown once again that it is the most dangerous political organization in the United States and the world.

In a recent essay for New Left Review, social theorist Mike Davis describes America's current state of crisis and what it portends:

Tomorrow liberal pundits may reassure us that the Republicans have committed suicide, that the age of Trump is over, and that Democrats are on the verge of reclaiming hegemony. Similar declarations, of course, were made during vicious Republican primaries in 2015. They seemed very convincing at the time. But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden's refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump's electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize. In any event, the only future that we can reliably foresee — a continuation of extreme socio-economic turbulence — renders political crystal balls useless.

History is being rewritten in real time during this tumultuous and in many ways unprecedented moment in American history. Within two weeks this nation will witness a coup attempt, an impeachment and a presidential inauguration — all during a plague and under a fascistic authoritarian regime.

Many leading voices among the mainstream American news media have spent the last few weeks and months (and for that matter years) downplaying the obvious threat of a coup and other political violence by Donald Trump and his followers.

When the Trump-inspired coup plot was put into action last Wednesday, those same voices in the mainstream news media suddenly shifted their language and tone, emulating those writers, thinkers and activists they had previously — and in some instances very recently — mocked, marginalized, denounced and sought to silence.

Watching this happen is like hearing a movie soundtrack being changed, without interruption, from the wistful chords of a romantic comedy to the thunderous crescendos of an action spectacle.

During last week's siege of the U.S. Capitol, the "hope peddlers" and other professional centrists abruptly appropriated the language of "the Resistance," spontaneously finding last-minute courage to tell the truth about Trump's presidency and his movement. Now those same public voices are pretending they never denied the real dangers of Trumpism and American fascism, playing their new role as imposter defenders of democracy.

Such a shift in speech, tone and thought is patently insincere: it is the worst sort of cowardice and self-serving behavior, driven by the fear that history will remember one's errors. There are also great financial and reputational incentives in pretending to have been correct all along, when in fact those public voices were repeatedly and fabulously wrong.

As part of this sudden rewrite of history, those in the mainstream news media who denied the obvious reality of Trump's imminent coup (which could have been foretold before he took office in 2017) are also claiming that "we" were all victims of a "failure of imagination" and that "it was impossible to think such a thing could happen" in America.

With such claims, mainstream journalists are adopting a version of the royal first-person plural, speaking of how "we" have finally woken up to the dangers of Donald Trump, or saying that "we" have ignored" the dangers of right-wing extremism in the United States for too long.

In the world as it actually exists, Black and brown Americans have long understood that Donald Trump and his movement are an existential threat to the United States. Because of their personal or historical experience there are other individuals and groups, such as Muslims, Jewish people and recent immigrants and refugees, who also possess similar insights and instincts.

Many liberals, and progressives of all races, are also aware that Trumpism represents an extreme threat to democracy and American society. And of course, there are a select few public voices who, at considerable personal risk, have spent the last few years sounding the alarm about the rise of American fascism.

When prominent pundits, journalists and others in that sphere make the specious claim that Trump's coup attack and other examples of right-wing terrorism are "unthinkable," they are really pursuing a reclamation project for the reputation and authority of the mainstream media, in an era when that institution has consistently failed to defend democracy.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media is not likely to learn from its errors, or to consider how it enabled, normalized and empowered Donald Trump and his neofascist movement. What should of course happen in the aftermath of Trump's presidency is an ambitious recommitment to advocacy journalism and to holding government accountable, as well as a commitment to diversify America's newsrooms in terms of race, class, geography, professional and educational backgrounds and other meaningful criteria. In that world, the mainstream media would also come to grips with the principle that neutrality is not the same as objectivity.

To wit: It is objectively true that Donald Trump is a public menace. But the hope peddlers, professional centrists and stenographers of current events will inevitably present such facts as opinions demanding "balance" from "both sides" in an equation built on false equivalence.

Such obsolete rules and norms will also inevitably be used as cudgels by the mainstream news media against Joe Biden's administration and the Democratic Party. This will only further embolden the Republican Party and its anti-human and anti-democratic agenda.

Ultimately, because the mainstream news media failed so dramatically in its response to Donald Trump, it will overcompensate through Janus-faced vigilance toward the Biden administration and the liberal or progressive agenda more generally. When this happens — and it is happening already: see Lesley Stahl's interview with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on last Sunday's "60 Minutes" — American democracy will suffer more damage, succumbing still further to the poison of authoritarianism.