The Media and Trump’s Authoritarianism

As the media rushed to Indianapolis to breathlessly marvel at and praise Donald Trump for striking a deal with Carrier to prevent 800 jobs from moving to Mexico, he used remarkable language at a rally to crow about the deal, the language of a tyrant, language that highlights precisely why our fifth estate lacks the wherewithal or depth to tackle the very real threat of authoritarianism that is taking hold in America.

In Trump’s speech, he asserted that “companies are not going to leave the United States without consequences.” CNN and other news outlets, so easily distracted by the ongoing Trump circus, failed to spend even a moment pondering the fact that the president elect is using threats to keep US businesses in line, which is precisely how an autocrat manages the private sector. Carrier almost certainly feared losing government contracts if they shipped jobs to Mexico. The Carrier affair, which should be perceived as another worrying sign of Trump’s authoritarian instincts, was instead presented as an example of the rule breaking outsider following through on a campaign promise to get things done without regard for convention or established political norms. Political theater makes for good ratings, and the media cannot resist Trump’s showmanship, which comes at the expense of any cogent analysis of the menace and bullying that tinges the Carrier affair and most of his remarks and actions.

It should go without saying that in a constitutional democracy, the president should not use fear and intimidation to bend constituencies, including the private sector, to his will. CNN’s David Gergen, the definition of an out of touch Washington insider clinging to the conventional wisdom of a bygone political era, attacked Bernie Sanders for writing an editorial in the Washington Post which criticized the deal. He claimed that Barack Obama deserved praise for the auto industry bailout of 2010, which according to some estimates saved upwards of 1.5 million jobs (compared to 800 for the Carrier stunt), and therefore Trump deserves praise for the jobs saved in the Carrier fiasco. The false equivalence is stunning on several levels. To pretend that the 800 jobs saved in Indiana and the 1.5 million saved in Michigan are somehow on the same plane is patently absurd.

The auto bailout was passed by Congress and signed into law by two presidents, the culmination of a clearly defined democratic process under both the Bush and Obama administrations. The Carrier deal, on the other hand, shows that Trump will use the force of his personality to impose his will on private enterprise, a mindset that fits with his views on the press, protesters, and anybody who challenges him.

The seeming lack of concern for these threats to democracy from inside the beltway pundits and cable news outlets reflects the shallowness of the discourse and their desperate need to maintain access to the incoming Trump administration. Point out that Trump has more in common with Vladimir Putin than most former US presidents, and they risk losing scoops and being shut out by the new administration. In the 24/7 media landscape, access journalism trumps (please forgive me for this horrendous pun) adversarial journalism, at a moment when America has never needed adversarial journalism more to stand up to the dark forces of neo-fascism and tyranny that are gaining a foothold in Washington.

The default mode of thought among the punditocracy is to push the notion of centrism and compromise at all costs. However, the Republican party spent the past decade catering to its increasingly extremist base, while the Democratic party has moved slightly to the left, but has mostly stuck to a Clintonian neoliberal orientation, favoring private sector driven solutions, a more robust redistributive model, and free trade. Anti-democratic ideas have been gaining currency on the Republican side for years. Trump’s nomination was only made possible by the Republican party’s increasingly authoritarian orientation. Therefore, the “center” in this political landscape is a place where bigotry and regressive policies will still flourish.

Compromise on core values would mean abandoning the most vulnerable Americans at a time when they need the Democrats to fight for decency and compassion. So when pundits encourage compromise, they’re asking Democrats to compromise with a party that is firmly resistant to the notion of governing when out of power, or in rolling back the social justice gains of the past fifty years when in power through Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” legislative agenda. On the false “voter fraud” issue, there is no middle ground on laws that aim to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters, no compromise on policies that are dangerous and undemocratic. To demand compromise and collaboration with extemism in order to maintain a façade of reasonableness is to surrender progress and democratic values to the ugliness that has infected our politics.

Whether the media can see beyond its thirst for ratings and addiction to Trump’s showmanship, to understand their complicity in his rise to power, remains to be seen. Irreparable harm has already been done. If the media doesn’t cover the disturbing erosion of democratic norms with courage and insight, things will get far worse.