The United States is suffering simultaneous, catastrophic failures in the load-bearing supports of its society. These failures are occurring exactly at the moment when strength is required, and I fear for the outcome.
I believe in the power of communication. I believe in the power of words. I believe these tools are sufficient to meet the challenges of this moment in history. I do, however, realize that very few people have prepared adequately to confront what is happening in America, and this lack of preparation shows quite alarmingly in the mainstream news coverage of current events. The Fourth Estate may be the most important pillar of America that has buckled. The host was ill long before Donald Trump rode down that escalator and launched his Presidential campaign by coughing his virulent racism into the political air.
Ratings drive the news. That’s why during the campaign, Trump’s empty podium was given more time than his opponents’ speeches. All that free media (billions of dollars worth) was just turned over to him — a man anyone with the barest grasp of how decent society should function could see was unfit to lead. He put up numbers, though. That trumped everything else. When Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, said of Trump’s campaign, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he let slip what many of the higher-ups at his competitors were also probably thinking. Their actions certainly seemed to bear out that cynical philosophy.
The moment some of us saw those red “Make America Great Again” hats, we knew they would eventually be artefacts in future museum exhibits memorializing atrocities. The historical parallels were clear, present, and signaled great danger. Mainstream news coverage did little to convey the risks, though. Instead of a clarion call of warning, there was sneering at Trump’s vulgarity and lack of facility with “how things were done” during Presidential campaigns. The problem with him wasn’t that he’s a fascist, it was that he’s gauche. His ineloquence disqualified him, not his abhorrent rhetoric.
In many newsrooms, gawking stood in for meaningful analysis. It seemed impossible that a man as repugnant as Donald Trump could ever be elevated to the position of President of the United States. By the time it became clear that, yes, this horror could come to pass, the back pedaling and attempts to mount a meaningful opposition to him were too late.
This wasn’t a single moment of failure limited to the 2016 campaign, though. The reason Donald Trump’s clear statements about his intentions weren’t taken seriously is because American politics is a game to the people who cover it.
“They’re throwing red meat to the base.” That’s the phrase that inevitably crops up whenever Republican politicians lean into their bigotry. It’s nearly always presented as a tactic, something they do to gin up votes. Exactly zero Republicans in Congress are supporting the legislation to end family separation at the border. Donald Trump’s unwillingness to even pretend to be decent has finally made it clear to even the most obtuse: this isn’t a tactic; it’s who they are.
And what of this “base” that has been fed all this red meat for decades? Will it not have nourished their bigotry and made it strong? Will it not have left them demanding even more? Was it not predictable that the “base” would have insisted on an escalation from strident words to malignant deeds?
A majority of Republicans supports the separation of families that is happening at America’s Mexican border. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Some of Donald Trump’s most fervent high-profile supporters and surrogates have been spouting fascist talking points for decades, yet we’re somehow at a place where people are shocked that they and their followers are fascists.
Laura Ingraham, who has described those detention centers for children as “summer camps,” has had a long, lucrative career going on television and saying villainous things. As has Ann Coulter, who called the children being detained “child actors” and implored Donald Trump not to fall for their trickery.
These people are wicked. They’ve been telling us they’re wicked every time they opened their mouths over the last twenty years. Yet they were regularly invited onto supposedly liberal programs and allowed to vomit their vitriol all over the airwaves. They were smiled at and welcomed and even defended. Their “bravery” for showing up on “enemy territory” was lauded. They were legitimized at every turn.
Even as the Trump administration commits outrage after outrage, the major networks keep inviting on his surrogates to lie and lie and lie. They have no strategy for properly handling the matter. Allowing these people to come on the air to spout their immoral philosophy isn’t balance — it is disseminating their propaganda. Fox News is functioning as state television. They have their own propaganda arm. Allow it to suffice.
The problem extends beyond 24/7 cable news to the hallowed New York Times, the venerable Grey Lady. The editors seem obsessed with winning over Trump voters at all costs. The paper is printing inexplicably sympathetic profiles of neo-Nazis (they’re just like us!) and op-eds decrying profanity when used to confront fascists. There are also constant gymnastics to blame Trump’s ascension on everything except racism. They can’t even say the word “racism” outright most of the time. That would be too much like using your outside voice inside a library. In the name of some kind of Frankensteinian evenhandedness, America’s paper of record has become filled with fascist apologia.
Part of what we’re witnessing is the exposure of how hollow the high-mindedness born of a particular kind of academic cleverness is, of how often it is the enemy of moral clarity. Performatively taking the “high road” and always striving to be “classier” strip the truth of the abrasive quality it needs to debride society’s festering wounds. The people producing America’s liberal news think their broadcast sets and op-ed pages are extensions of Ivy League debate societies. Their sophistication, shiny credentials, and cosmopolitan city living mask a dangerous naïveté.
Manipulative people prey on our conscientiousness, our agreeableness, our willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt. It is foundational to their abuse. Debate is only valuable when both parties are acting in good faith. Fascists never act in good faith, because they are dissemblers. It is constitutional. Anyone who doesn’t understand this has no business running a newsroom. Anyone who thinks good manners and politeness are going to win this thing needs to sit this one out. They don’t understand what’s happening.
The empty maxim, “When they go low, we go high,” is part of what got us here. Too often, “going high” means looking down from a place of privilege, while others suffer, so you don’t have to get your hair messed up. “Going high” is to choose aloofness when righteous anger is required. “Going high” is just a fancier way of saying you’re too cool for school. At some point, someone is going to have to get down on the ground with those who would debase us all and wrestle them into submission. If you are not such a person, this particular moment in history requires that you either lend aid, comfort, and support to the noble fighter or shut your cakehole.
The moment we are living through is the nadir of a long decline. Climbing back into the light requires that the truth be told. Donald Trump was elevated then elected because he was sensational. We have to be careful not to fall into the trap of serving up only the truths that can be sensationalized in the fight against his regime. The truth must be told, because it is the truth.
Those pictures of those children in cages are sensational. As is the audio of their traumatized wailing. These are facts that need to be reported, but turning it into tragedy porn serves only to create a separate stream of propaganda and obfuscates the actions that need to be taken.
Many people who are rightfully outraged shared photos of the detention centers to their social media. They doubled back when they realized some of the photos were from 2014 — during the Obama Presidency. Anyone who thinks toppling Donald Trump will solve matters doesn’t have a full grasp of what’s happening. The tools at his disposal were built with bipartisan support over decades. That was the point of all those conservatives shouting about how allowing their bigotry on air was necessary for balance. It was to loosen the lid on Pandora’s box. It was to get the other side to help them construct the apparatus they needed to carry out their ethnic cleansing. Make no mistake, that is their stated intention: to turn America back into a full-fledged Apartheid White ethnostate.
Incarceration — caging people, traumatizing them, devastating their families and communities — is the main instrument they use to inflict their oppression. It is about finding pretexts to exclude certain groups from society, permanently, if possible. If they can find a way to send you to prison, they will. If they can remove you from the country altogether, that’s Christmas for them. How disproportionate the punishments are is deliberate. Their gun fetish and reverence for capital punishment makes me fear they’ll bring death on a mass scale next.
The apparatus at work is evil. It was built with the purpose of doing evil. It shouldn’t exist. Anyone who can’t see that, anyone who helped construct and defend it, anyone who believes it to be essentially benign but just in the wrong hands at the moment, anyone who went along with this all, cannot be trusted to lead in this moment. For America to climb out of the abyss, these dark materials have to be destroyed. Anyone who isn’t willing to tell the truth about that shouldn’t be in a newsroom.