From the Boiling Frogs on The Dispatch
Good evening! We’re five days away from the most competitive presidential primary the Republican Party has seen in eight years.
Here is the frontrunner’s closing message:
“People do these elaborate takes about Trump’s authoritarian aspirations and then he just comes out and says the president should be allowed to do infinite crimes,” Matt Yglesias marveled.
Trump 2024: Infinite Crimes. It has a ring to it.
Never mind what his logic would mean for Joe Biden’s power to behave with impunity or that the country went 230 years without prosecuting presidents for mistakes until one made the “mistake” of attempting a coup. “Infinite crimes” is true to the spirit of a person whose existence has been spent pursuing selfish interests and ferociously resenting impediments placed in his way. Case in point: Scroll through his feed at Truth Social and you’ll find him posting manically over the last few days not about the election or his policy plans for a second term but about his vendetta against the woman who successfully sued him civilly last year for rape.
When he noted with relish during his first campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing votes, it was the sound of a depraved man being granted his fondest wish. That being so, there was never a question that his appetite for being unaccountable to anyone would eventually extend beyond voters to the law itself. “Infinite crimes if I want to do them” is typically the endgame with a sociopath.
Strangely, major American media outlets don’t want you to know this.
Well … no, that’s not fair. They do want you to know it, but they’re itchy about their role in having to relay the information. Reporters and commentators outside the right-wing bubble have grown understandably anxious about providing a platform to a man who lies like he breathes, smears his enemies without compunction, and has been known to incite violence when he doesn’t get his way. Since January 6, an ethic has developed within mainstream media that it’s irresponsible to “normalize” Trump by granting him airtime, especially when he’s speaking live.
For evidence, look no further than the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, when CNN and MSNBC each declined to air the entirety of his victory speech. (Trump reacted to the snub predictably.) That was no oversight, as anchors Jake Tapper and Rachel Maddow, respectively, made clear. Non-conservative networks have made a judgment that lending their megaphones to Trump, even when the news clearly points toward doing so, will do more harm civically than good.
We can ignore the whining about that judgment from Trump’s sycophants, especially those like Marco Rubio who foresaw the terrible damage he would do to American politics and now have the gall to whine about the media acting in an “authoritarian” way as they struggle to cope with it. But the fact that Rubio is a soulless enabler of the infinite-crimes candidate shouldn’t distract us from the fact that media blackouts of Trump have outlived their usefulness.
It’s time to re-platform the worst public figure in the United States.
The colossal amount of media coverage Trump enjoyed in 2016 has been a sore spot among his critics for years.
To those of us who oppose him sincerely, from classically liberal conservatives to every ideological shade of Democrat, it remains unfathomable that cable news lavished $2 billion worth of free airtime on him that cycle, erasing his opponents’ spending advantage. Every Never Trumper worth his or her salt can quote from memory Les Moonves’ infamous quip about that race: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Those who oppose him insincerely, i.e., anti-anti-Trump Republicans, will also eagerly complain about the media’s role in promoting him during his first run for president. That’s not because they’re truly aggrieved by it, it’s because they’re forever looking for excuses to keep voting GOP—and scapegoating the media allows them to absolve the party for having committed itself so slavishly to such a lowlife.
You can see, then, why media executives might be reluctant this time to let Trump rant at length on their dime: Most of the country resents them, sincerely or otherwise, for having allowed him to do so once before. Even absent that public pressure, I’d like to believe those executives retain enough of a civic conscience that they wouldn’t repeat their terrible mistake of 2016 if they could do it over again. De-platforming Trump after January 6, insofar as the daily news cycle has allowed them to do so, is their attempt at atonement.
The problem is that it’s backfiring.
Trump is more popular than he's been in a long while and it's time to admit that "deplatforming" him didn't work. pic.twitter.com/Y5mum5BMZQ
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 16, 2024
Eight years ago Trump was … not “normal,” certainly, but more normal than he is now. Amid occasional digressions about issuing illegal orders to the military and expecting them to obey, he spoke about the wall, bringing jobs back to America, and “draining the swamp” of special interests. He hadn’t staged any coups or instigated any riots. Casual voters could plausibly (sort of?) digest the endless media coverage of his candidacy, thrill to the excitement of his freewheeling candidacy, and conclude that he was “normal” enough to risk trusting with the presidency.
Post-coup, post-riot, the media has decided that carrying his public remarks live and focusing obsessively on his daily provocations risks repeating that mistake and producing a similar outcome. But by doing so they’re inadvertently blinding those same casual voters to the fact that Trump is much more sinister a figure today than he was eight years ago. They’ve overcorrected—and ironically, despite their good intentions, they’re helping him get elected again.
The possibility that many voters don’t realize that Trump is deep into the Captain Queeg stage of his deterioration has been a topic of this newsletter before. Most Americans don’t read Truth Social and probably don’t pay much attention to politics unless it’s in their face 24/7, as Trump’s candidacy was in 2016. If you want to educate them about his descent into Queeg-dom and scare them off of trusting him again, more coverage is the way to go, not less. Especially since, in 2024, voters are far more deeply immersed in “bespoke realities” than they were eight years ago. Puncturing those realities will take considerable effort. There’s no time to waste.
McKay Coppins made a similar point a few days ago at The Atlantic when he encouraged his readers to attend a Trump rally if they get the chance. The former president is somehow lamer and scarier than he used to be, neither of which should wear well with swing voters given a good hard dose of it:
If one thing has noticeably changed since 2016, it’s how the audience reacts to Trump. During his first campaign, the improvised material was what everyone looked forward to, while the written sections felt largely like box-checking. But in Mason City, the off-script riffs—many of which revolved around the 2020 election being stolen from him, and his personal sense of martyrdom—often turned rambly, and the crowd seemed to lose interest. At one point, a woman in front of me rolled her eyes and muttered, “He’s just babbling now.” She left a few minutes later, joining a steady stream of early exiters, and I wondered then whether even the most loyal Trump supporters might be surprised if they were to see their leader speak in person.
My own takeaway from the event was that there’s a reason Trump is no longer the cultural phenomenon he was in 2016. Yes, the novelty has worn off. But he also seems to have lost the instinct for entertainment that once made him so interesting to audiences. He relies on a shorthand legible only to his most dedicated followers, and his tendency to get lost in rhetorical cul-de-sacs of self-pity and anger wears thin. This doesn’t necessarily make him less dangerous. There is a rote quality now to his darkest rhetoric that I found more unnerving than when it used to command wall-to-wall news coverage.
Finding a balance between giving Trump too much attention and unintentionally suppressing evidence of his authoritarianism can be difficult even for us at The Dispatch. Until fairly recently, we worried about over-covering him, not wanting to amplify every outrageous utterance he made when he was only one of several Republican presidential candidates. (Allowances were made for certain Trump-obsessed newsletters, of course.) Lately, as he’s moved toward a runaway victory in the primary, we’re trying to take care not to under-cover him. He’s the odds-on favorite to be the next president; when he rants about his constitutional power to commit infinite crimes, voters need to know.
That’s not to say that them knowing will necessarily foil his plans, especially in the Republican primary. It’s a terrible indictment of Trump’s party that he could publicly demand total immunity for any misconduct he might commit as president five days before New Hampshire votes and rest assured that neither of his remaining opponents will complain about it—and that, if they do, voters might hold the complaint against them more so than against him.
But making sure voters know the stakes of the election will at least make it hard for the candidate and his many enablers to pretend that it’s about something other than Trump craving monarchical powers for himself. When Rand Paul was asked today whether a would-be strongman should be able to commit crimes with impunity as president, the ostensible “libertarian” pathetically sniffed that he wasn’t familiar with the legal niceties of the argument and therefore couldn’t comment. (Paul once spoke for 12 hours against Barack Obama’s theoretical power to drone American citizens, Jonah Goldberg reminds us.) That sort of dodge about Trump’s worst impulses will be standard operating procedure for Republicans all the way into fall. The more coverage those impulses receive, the more difficult the dodging will be.
Fortunately, the candidate himself will have no problem making it difficult for them. I wrote in November that, if I were advising Trump, I’d keep him off the trail as much as possible and make sure his public remarks are tightly scripted—better to keep the focus of the coming election on Biden’s presidency. When Trump delivered an uncharacteristically magnanimous victory speech a few nights ago in Iowa, I thought back to that column. His advisors knew he’d have a big audience for the moment and cannily made sure that he was on his best behavior while reintroducing himself to America.
But alas, January 15, 2024, was not the day Trump finally became president. Eventually his desire for infinite crimes would express itself and it did, just three days later. If the media covers episodes like this one as abundantly as they covered him in 2016, he’ll provide the rope to hang his candidacy himself.
I’d like to believe that turning the 2024 election into a referendum on Trump will produce the same result as the last referendum on him did in 2020. I do think it’s Biden’s best bet at victory, and the White House appears to agree. But I’m not as confident as I wish.
Earlier this week, David Frum asked a question at The Atlantic that’s been on my mind every day for, oh, about eight years now.
What kind of people are Americans, anyway? Trump has made clear, without illusions, that his ballot issue in 2024 is to rehabilitate and ratify his attempt to overturn the election of 2020. He is running to protect himself from the legal consequences of that attempt. But even more fundamentally, he is running to justify himself for attempting it. In 2016, Trump opponents warned that he might refuse to leave office if defeated. In 2024, Trump himself is arguing that he was right to refuse to leave office when defeated, and he is asking Americans to approve his refusal.
If he should return to the presidency in 2025, we have no reason to expect him to leave in 2029. So maybe the issue on the ballot in 2024 is not a choice at all, but a much more open-ended question. We know who Biden is. We know who Trump is. Who are we?
It matters enormously who wins the election, of course. But even in the best-case scenario, the candidate of “infinite crimes” will come very close to winning and will claim the support of a near-majority of voters. I don’t know how anyone can have the same respect for this country that they had 10 years ago having seen now what half the population will tolerate or condone.
That’s another reason why the media should ramp up its coverage of Trump. We can’t insist on a particular result in a democracy, but we can insist on public clarity about the implications of the choice. If America is really going to do this, let there be no feeble excuses afterward that the poor naifs of the general electorate weren’t fully informed about what they were choosing because they were underserved by the press.
Republicans asked for this. They’ve been asking for it since 2016. But robust coverage of Trump’s illiberal fantasies this year will ensure that no one can pretend otherwise in the aftermath.
Democrats in Congress can aid the effort by using legislative power to call attention to the frontrunner’s intentions. Last month, our friend David French wondered why no serious effort had been made in Washington to reform the Insurrection Act, the statute that grants the president frighteningly broad authority to deploy U.S. troops internally due to civil unrest. Biden’s party controls the Senate; there’s nothing stopping them from introducing a bill to revisit the Act and limit the commander-in-chief’s power to institute de facto martial law.
If Republicans in the House and/or Senate resist the effort, that in itself is a major news story for the media to cover. There’s no logical reason that “constitutional conservatives” from the so-called party of small government should side with the executive’s prerogative to oppress the people through military means. If bigwigs in Trump’s party insist on doing so anyway, they should spend every day of the rest of their miserable lives being asked why. On camera.
And yet, having said all of that, we also should recognize that there will still be times when the responsible thing to do is to not cover Trump, even at his worst moments. Especially at his worst moments.
I believed then—and still believe now—that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook were right to suspend Trump’s accounts after the rampage at the Capitol began on January 6. When a man is willing and able to incite a violent uprising against the government, the private actor that’s loaned him its bullhorn is entitled—obliged, even—to snatch it away before he does more damage.
There may be another moment like that this year. More than one, conceivably.
If he’s convicted of any of the crimes he’s been charged with, if he’s disqualified from office by the Supreme Court under the 14th Amendment, if he loses the election to Joe Biden fair and square, he’ll screech like a wounded animal and egg on his disciples to avenge him in whatever manner they see fit. We all know it, very much including the millions of Republicans who intend to vote for him in November regardless. Trump is an insurrectionist, no matter how uncomfortable that word might make them. But it’s not that they don’t realize it. They just don’t care.
When, not if, his most ardent supporters undertake to commit what will feel like infinite crimes on his behalf, the media will again have to choke off his access to their airwaves for the sake of public safety. But until then, they’re doing him a favor by treating him recurrently as beneath their dignity as good Americans to cover. Sunlight turns out to be the best disinfectant after all. And it’ll take a lot of it to decontaminate a political movement as toxic as this.