Stop Calling Trump “Toddler-in-Chief”. He’s Not Throwing a Tantrum. He’s Trying to Overthrow Democracy.
The temptation to liken the president to a child has been irresistible for too many journalists who’ve reacted to his threatening behavior like bemused, annoyed parents, rather than fierce defenders of democracy in peril. The public needs the press to change its lens.
When I was eight, a classmate invited me over for a playdate. At her request, I brought my freezer baggie stuffed with all my hand-made beaded bracelets and necklaces. An hour later, when it was time for me to go, she slammed herself against her bedroom door as a human barricade, and began to scream at me. As I scrambled to gather my things, she suddenly dropped to the floor, wild and breathless, clawed two fistfuls of my beaded crafts…and hurled them across the room.
I remember this story now not because I’m thinking of a grown man acting like an eight year-old who’s barricading the exits. But, because of the way journalists are dangerously inclined to explain his behavior: the current president as big, pouty baby. Framing this president’s seditious, authoritarian attempts as childish “misbehavior” only exacerbates our national public health crisis and threats to democracy.
The media has had a tendency to infantilize Trump. To see him as spoiled, unruly, whiny, and petulant. To call a forever timeout. To jest about his insatiable need for attention. Maybe this joking around is their way of coping with the horror and trauma of the last four years. Maybe it’s a way of minimizing his power to harm, a misguided kind of cajoling. And maybe they’ve been trying to normalize the president, to cover him as they would any other, to maintain access and respect the “Office”, yet have found themselves caught between accountability and self-defense. There’s a fallout for this disconnect.
As we approach a year of pandemic disaster, it’s a public threat to call Trump “a toddler”. (And a disservice to toddlers, incapable of malicious intent.) A press that infantilizes Trump sees his dangerous deviance through the lens of parental tsking. Through this lens, of course, he’s whining. He’s having a ‘meltdown’. He’s ‘pouting’. But, it serves nobody to call Trump a brat. Who cares that he’s a “sore loser”? As though he lost a round of golf. As a president who downplayed the virus while he and his friends profited, he’s responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands Americans and millions of jobs, for miles-long food lines, pending evictions, and economic despair.
During Trump’s tenure, the press has grappled with euphemisms and ‘both sides’. Reporters, who had never used the word ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unhinged’ with such frequency, still struggle with how to seriously cover a dangerous president whose behavior long ago sounded the alarms of mental health experts’ duty to warn.
This president has required a different kind of press coverage, wholly out of step with old school journalism rules of reporting and light years from traditional presidential ‘etiquette’. I‘ve written about how Trump knows how to hack the media’s nervous system. I’ve written about how breaking news has become broken news, how the press has navigated this age of firehose news coverage.
But, we’re not teetering off a democracy’s cliff because of too much information. We are living in a world now in which deadly disinformation has not only become rampant, out of control, and lethal, but institutionalized. Trump and the GOP have normalized disinformation and anti-democracy as strategy. They have embraced this overt fiction as covert strategy, wrapping it in projection and pushing it back out to the public as a virulent form of patriotic paranoia. Victimhood mixed with vulnerability. Amped up fear has given way to vitriolic rage.
So far, that has paid off for Trump, as he amasses hundreds of millions in donations for his “election defense fund”. And it has paid off for him and his rich allies who had only dreamed of this kind of grifting and gouging, destructive dismantling of government, pandemic profiteering, and selling the country for parts.
The way we tell stories matters. Language and messaging matter. Ten months ago, when three hundred thousand people were still alive, when we couldn’t fathom a thousand people dying of COVID, it mattered that we had to collectively understand the need for masks through a unified message from the top. And it mattered that Trump not only refused to, but falsified that message. It mattered that his followers took his lead. I wrote about the dire consequences of yelling fake news in a pandemic here.
When a country’s people don’t share truths, they can’t share values, let alone a shared mission to save lives.
In the most catastrophic public health crisis in a century, it gravely matters that all news outlets reinforce the same public health message. The same way they do when when a hurricane is approaching. The way they do when they track its course and intensity. And yes, there are those who refuse to leave their homes even in an evacuation mandate. But, their refusal doesn’t lead to the hurricane lasting longer.
We’re at a critical threshold. There was an era in which the role of the press was to hold public officials accountable as a public service to a democratic society. Now, it’s the public who must hold the press accountable, and insist on the necessary gravity of factual, contextualized storytelling at a time when disinformation is killing people.
So, it matters that we avoid euphemisms. Trump and his administration didn’t “botch” the response to pandemic. It’s not that they got it wrong. It’s that they deliberately let it spread. Trump’s lack of response was his response. Sidelining experts was his response. His denial about its severity, contagion, impact, its lethality and lingering effects, its mitigation and its prevention, has led us here. COVID has engulfed the entire country, five times the global death average, with a projection of 526,000 daily infections by Christmas.
And to call GOP’s inaction “silence” is to see the party through a lens of cowardice. But, Republicans are actively aiding him in his attempt to overturn a free, fair, and legitimate election. Only 27 of them will admit Joe Biden won. At Trumps’ behest, Ted Cruz is even willing argue the case if it’s brought before the Supreme Court. Authoritarian expert Masha Gessen calls it a coup. This columnist calls it “crazy, stupid, and dangerous”.
Let’s stop calling Republicans “sycophants” worried about mean tweets and backlash. It focuses attention on their fealty to Trump, instead of their failure of leadership. It frames all their fascistic behavior as mere political chess, as shenanigans, you know, insider beltway mischief. (I need you to do me a favor, though.)
Republicans know what they’re doing. The press knows that they know. The GOP has been rigging elections for decades, through racist voter suppression tactics, gerrymandering, and, clandestine donor-backed influence on justices all the way to the supreme court. More than one hundred Republicans officially support Trump crying post-election foul.
To tell this story as a GOP survival strategy — whatever it takes to win — is to perpetuate the message that entrenched generational suffering is just a way of life for some people. And a way of winning in politics.
It’s a story that allows the suffering to continue and protects those who frame and perpetuate it.
Clearly, the GOP doesn’t fear a constitutional collapse. Constitutional collapse has been the goal. Now, they claim that the two runoff seats in Georgia on January 5th will allow a Republican senate to be “a check on Biden”. A check…on Biden?
Americans don’t need a check on Biden. They need a check. Period. And they need it now.
After eight pandemic months of McConnell blockade and counting, the American people must know the truth about why it’s being held up, and make regular references to it. Press must cover the McConnell ‘deal’ that won’t help Americans, not false narratives about a duel between party leaders.
McConnell welcomes his grim reaper status. But, holding him accountable for his actions requires journalists to at least see beyond his nickname. It’s not enough to count COVID relief bill among the other 395 bills gathering dust on his desk.
The press must not treat this as old fashioned Washington gridlock. It’s not a failed deal between the White House and Democrats. And, not disagreement between two good faith parties. It’s a unilateral attack on democracy.
The GOP is not trying to defend democratic values. They’ve been feverishly working to pathologize democracy. To push out propaganda, by party and media, that inflames and misinforms, stokes contempt, and torches the constitution in daylight.
Trump and this GOP have built and played this system with cruel precision and no appetite for ethics. The press knows this. By treating both parties as equal gridlock partners, the dangerous anti-democratic actions of the modern GOP are seen through an old party lens, and rationalized.
There are stakes in telling stories in certain ways. There are stakes in sharpening focus on corruption and tax cuts for the wealthy. And there are stakes to centering public health, racial justice, economic equity, and climate justice, and to connecting the dots among these intersectional crises. In our current world of corporatized media, is a free press truly free?
There’s a dire need now for the press to reclaim its first amendment right and reimagine their critical public role in a democratic society. Journalists must have the agency to change lenses and tell a more complete story that adequately and accurately informs the public, as millions of people struggle to survive. To do any less is to unwittingly promote public helplessness, reinforce trauma, prolong suffering, and make it harder for people to make conscious, informed decisions.
In the coming weeks, as Trump prepares his flurry of pardons, the public must pay close attention to how the press tells these stories. As Trump likens pardons to Christmas gifts, we can’t afford to make light of the grift that keeps on giving. Americans need the press to focus, with new eyes, on the necessity of reporting to a changed audience, one traumatized and transformed by grief, loss, isolation, despair, and the collective call for a full-tilt reckoning on all forms of justice. An audience that needs to be informed, not inflamed.
W e barely saved democracy a few weeks ago. And, if we see the world right now according to Trump, the certified election is still up for grabs. More than fifty lawsuits and lost suits haven’t altered the outcome. Republicans are gunning for minority rule at all costs, already organizing to create and change state laws to make it even harder for black communities to vote in future elections.
This has been the covert playbook all along. Now, it’s open season for sedition. More than a month after the 2020 election, eighteen AG’s have joined a lawsuit to throw out millions of votes in order to overturn the election results in Trump’s favor. Republicans vow to take their own fight to the floor. The question isn’t “will it work” (It won’t), but…
…once Trump does finally leave, will the press actually let him go?
Journalists must stay vigilant and serious, and change its lens to, as journalism professor Jay Rosen says, “de-center Trump”. Press must stop giving Trump and all those who actively decry democracy more media oxygen. The public needs oxygen. Americans need relief. It’s about providing clarity of message, about discerning fact from opinion, conspiracy from public health threat. It’s about reporting truth to power, shedding light on dark money, protecting democracy as it hangs in the imbalance.
This means, not just defining the high stakes of where we are as a nation, now and in the foreseeable future, but pursuing, with renewed purpose, the urgent story of democracy at the brink, in ways that fully consider what role the press and the public play in salvaging it. Next time, it may not even be close.