We fiddle, and the republic burns.
It's sickening. Donald Trump, man-child arsonist, is day by day torching the most sacred American values -- threatening the welfare of millions, undermining the pillars of our democracy, igniting the ugliest impulses of the society's id -- and we, the media, are covering it like a bemused recap of House of Cards.
The rapacious CBS Chairman Les Moonves and the cable-newslike channels are delighted at the spectacle; disaster is always great for ratings. But this is not a show, to be consumed and titillated by and parsed. It is a conflagration of hatred and authoritarianism on its way to consuming us, or at least that which makes us us. Trumpism is raging out of control and the Fourth Estate responds how?
By going through the motions.
The usual false balance. The usual staged cable bickering. The usual dry contextual analysis. The usual intermittent truth-squading to garnish our careless daily servings of uncontested hate speech, incitement and manifest lies. The usual reluctance to “be part of the story” -- which, in fact, we are inextricably part of because we in large measure created it by giving oxygen to his every incendiary outrage and being our soundbitten, compulsively enabling selves.
It is precisely this craven faux objectivity, after all, that fueled the historically ruinous Iraq war. It is just this fetishized impartiality that gave us a decade of stenography as the country's political center moved to the far fringes of the right. (Alas, this is not my first call to vigilance.) When one side of a story is madness, medieval anti-intellectualism, scapegoating. demagoguery and lies, the neutral broker in the middle has in fact made a choice. The wrong choice.
The only right choice is for truth. And righteous condemnation, not ghettoized on opinion pages but front and center. Every day.
Are we not supposed to be the watchdogs, the speakers of truth to power, the guardians of democracy? It's time for a gut check. Colleagues, stop gawking. Stop debating. Stop obsessing on the process. Stop being distracted by the daily Trumpruption. Stop analyzing his “policy” positions, his vp choice, his potential Supreme Court nominees, his unreleased tax returns.
This reflexive focus on the latest development, the political ebb and flow and the architecture of the coming election simply buries the lede -- that the man is monstrously unfit and un-American -- and normalizes the grossly, tragically abnormal.
He is racist. He is misogynistic. He is a xenophobe in the nation of immigrants. He has repeatedly incited violence. He shows neither understanding nor respect for the balance of powers, or any other aspect of the Constitution. To protect his personally thin skin, he has promised to weaken the First Amendment. He shows no appreciation for the role of government, but embraces a dictatorial vision of executive power, threatening to unilaterally scuttle international agreements, repeal legislation and default on the national debt.
He has played footsie with and failed to disown some of his most extreme supporters, including avowed racists and anti-Semites. He has ridiculed the disabled. He has disparaged the heroism of POW John McCain. He has defended the size of his junk on national television.
Oh, and he's a pathological liar.
Barry Goldwater? Sen Joseph McCarthy? Pat Buchanan? Statesmen and pussycats all compared to Trump, rabid predator and evil clown.
So if all of his horrifying disqualifications are as stated -- and they are -- why has there been no media crusade to deny him the presidency? The press jumps to warn America about missing children, tainted meat and approaching dustings of snow? Why are we not on high fucking alert?
Well, there are actually three impediments. The first is the aforementioned fairness imperative, which is obviously well-intentioned and laudable -- until it bends over backwards into a paralyzing contortion. As so often documented, the balance reflex often endows false legitimacy on illegitimate positions, among them climate denial, the anti-vax movement, creationism, Birthers, 9/11 Truthers and a whole host of objectively indefensible fantasies, superstitions and conspiracy theories.
The second countervailing force is simple fear. For three decades, the media have faced the accusation from the right that it is infected with liberal bias. The likes of Fox News Channel, Drudge Report, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, NewsMax, The Daily Caller and Glenn Beck have risen in direct response to the supposed juggernaut of pinkoism they face in what Sarah Palin calls the lamestream media. To crusade against Trump would be the smoking gun the political right is looking for, proof positive that they were right all along.
Finally is the third obstacle: Godwin's Law. First promulgated by lawyer and author Mike Godwin to chasten Internet debaters who veer inexorably toward analogies with Nazism, it has done a good job of dissuading serious commentators from trivializing complex issues with glib “logical extensions” to the Holocaust. To invoke Hitler, et al., is considered -- in the pundit class -- to be rhetorically cheap, if not hysterical.
This bias against overreach is all well and good when the logical extensions must extend a ludicrous distance. But Trumpism has changed the calculus. In this scary moment, comparisons to European-style fascism are suddenly non-trivial, because the playbook is hauntingly familiar: Vilify sinister “others.” Preach hyper exceptionalism. Seek vast executive power. Prey on a sense of humiliation at the hands of enemies, foreign and domestic. Portray yourself as supremely imbued to personally deliver a hitherto lost destiny.
Indeed, if ever there were a sign of perilous times, this would be it: debates, raging for the past two weeks in prominent media channels, over whether Donald Trump is himself a fascist. Brookings Institution fellow Robert Kagan says it's a fair characterization (“Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader…in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation.”) Neocon historian Michael Ledeen, in Forbes and elsewhere, says fiddle faddle. ("Being a strong leader isn't enough to make you a fascist.”)
But even this debate is just a spat about how many Nazis can fit on the head of a pin. One scholar looks to 20th-century Europe for dire cautionary tales. The other enumerates the many reasons, from the dictionary of political science, that the comparisons are specious -- all amounting to this:
Robert Kagan: “Look out! He's got a rifle!”
Michael Ledeen: “You fool. That's a shotgun.”
Next: Blam. Blammm.
As Adam Gopnik observed in the last issue of The New Yorker, the assault is long since underway -- not potentially, not hypothetically, but in word and in deed already now.
One can argue about whether to call him a fascist or an authoritarian populist or a grotesque joke made in a nightmare shared between Philip K. Dick and Tom Wolfe, but under any label Trump is a declared enemy of the liberal constitutional order of the United States—the order that has made it, in fact, the great and plural country that it already is. He announces his enmity to America by word and action every day.
The American Republic stands threatened by the first overtly anti-democratic leader of a large party in its modern history—an authoritarian with no grasp of history, no impulse control, and no apparent barriers on his will to power. The right thing to do, for everyone who believes in liberal democracy, is to gather around and work to defeat him on Election Day.
At long last, colleagues, have you no sense of history? It has happened before. It is happening elsewhere. It is happening here. Gopnik's broadside is and must be the model for journalistic action, not to wallow in distraction, but to focus singlemindedly on the Trumpian core.
Heed not the (apocryphally) detached Nero but the resolute Cicero, who denounced Lucius Catiline in the Senate not once but four times, lest the scheming demagogue overthrow Rome.
When, O Catiline, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?
Such audacity must not be amplified. Do not enable Trump, do not elevate him -- do not above all market him. Every bit of deference -- and worse, every outrageous daily sound bite -- is a bellows to the flame.
Fires burn on oxygen. We must cut off the supply.