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.

Lu Hanessian, MSc
Dec 11, 2020 · 8 min read

Lu Hanessian

Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I wrote here that it’s not incompetence, but cruelty. Trump’s no “buffoon” or “clown”. To ever call his presidency a “circus” was to see all of his obvious pathology through a lens of entertainment.

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.)

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?

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.

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?

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.


Breaking through the spin

Lu Hanessian, MSc

Written by

President, Founder “Integrate Resilience”. Researcher, educator, journalist, former NBC network anchor/Discovery Health Channel.


Politics, tech, culture, economics magazine // commentary, analysis, opinion pieces and more

Lu Hanessian, MSc

Written by

President, Founder “Integrate Resilience”. Researcher, educator, journalist, former NBC network anchor/Discovery Health Channel.


Politics, tech, culture, economics magazine // commentary, analysis, opinion pieces and more

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