It’s been just a clutch of days since former President Donald Trump and his allies made clear that if he wins reelection, he plans to gut the existing U.S. government and “install a pre-vetted, pro-Trump army of up to 54,000 loyalists” to take over senior legal, judicial, defense, regulatory, and domestic policy jobs in the civil service. It’s been under a week since he announced in an interview on Univision that he’d cheerfully “weaponize” the power of the Justice Department to indict his rivals for no other reason than that they were “beating me very badly.” Also less than a week ago, he delivered his chilling Veterans Day promise to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, lie, steal, and cheat on elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and the American dream.” The news of his plans to carry out mass deportations while rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants and interning them in sprawling detention camps, as well as his hope to cancel U.S. visas—for lawful green-card and student visa holders—who harbor “anti-American” views is also very recent. All of this is to be achieved by installing armies of lawyers, judges, and functionaries who will not erect roadblocks to such projects, as they did when he was president the first time, because they don’t believe in the rule of law as we understand it. As Trump openly described his rationale for his plans last week in the most spine-chilling language yet, undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” And yes, the week is only half done.
We further learned, just a week ago, that Ohio Republicans plan to try to block a constitutional amendment protecting reproductive freedom by stripping state judges of the power to decide such cases. And we have learned in recent days of plans by allies of the new Republican House speaker to reinstate the brutally repressive Comstock Act so as to further limit sexual autonomy. And today we can’t seem to take our eyes off the now-violent physical altercations happening in the very same Capitol building that was stormed by violent extremists trying to overturn the 2020 election. The cogs and the wheels of democratic governance sound janky as hell right now.
The piece suggesting that all of the above represents an objective, verifiable, and historically predictive set of preconditions for authoritarianism, or fascism, or the end of free and fair elections has been said or written, succinctly and brilliantly, in recent days by Jamelle Bouie, Joyce Vance, Ruth Ben Ghiat, Rachel Maddow, John Cassidy, Seth Meyers, Jason Stanley, Zack Beauchamp, Chris Lehmann, Michael Tomasky, Scott Lehigh, and who knows how many others. And, perhaps paradoxically, the piece suggesting that the press has failed utterly to meet this perilous moment has been done, also brilliantly, by Margaret Sullivan, Brian Stelter, and Dan Froomkin, all of them echoing the call of New York University professor Jay Rosen, who continues to demand that the media cover the 2024 campaign by emphasizing “not the odds but the stakes.”
The stakes, we can probably agree, are in no way in doubt. As Bouie and others suggest, the Stephen Millers and Jeffrey Clarks and Steve Bannons are counting the minutes before “Flood the Zone With Shit” becomes the new “E Pluribus Unum.” Indeed, it almost seems as if “not the odds but the stakes” no longer captures a media failure alone; it actually also encapsulates the scope of a bitter political failure. We may actually have moved into the realm of journalism adequately covering the stakes, with the sad reality emerging that nobody seems to care much about the stakes at the present moment.
The horse race we are describing? The odds we are clocking? The contest we are all betting on? It’s now just fascism vs. democracy. These “stakes” we are, all of us, fretting about, this question of whether democracy survives the next 12 months, is the very thing everyone is watching like it’s the NCAA playoffs. I’m no longer completely convinced that voters don’t fully understand the stakes; not when you’re hearing Trump talking of executing his former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, not when you’re hearing of mass deportations without due process, and not when family separations at the border is a future promise, as opposed to a recent lawless tragedy.
What if the media is actually covering the spectacle precisely because the stakes—casual brutality, violence, callousness, lawlessness, and the descent into anarchy—are perfectly visible, legible, and clear? It’s hard to read any other way the current threats by sitting senators who promise to beat up committee witnesses, or former speakers of the House who elbow their political opponents, or congresspeople who say they will impeach everyone who makes them mad while dabbling in the recreational threat to shut down the government. What if the problem isn’t that consumers of media fail to understand the actual stakes of losing democracy? What if the problem is really that watching this MMA smackdown between fascism and representative democracy is, in fact, the 2023 version of good, clean fun? As Bouie puts it in his New York Times piece on the subject this week, “The mundane truth of American politics is that much of what we want to know is in plain view. You don’t have to search hard or seek it out; you just have to listen. And Donald Trump is telling us, loud and clear, that he wants to end American democracy as we know it.”
There is going to come a moment—and for many of the writers cited above, that moment has already arrived—in which the media appropriately reports on the enormity of the stakes and nobody flinches.
When you’ve been contending with such enormous stakes for as long as this country has—since at least that golden escalator ride eight years ago—it can be hard to keep flinching at the risks, even as they become ever more undeniable. Here’s hoping that our reflexes start to kick in over the next 12 months, lest we’re once again reminded of what happens when the stakes have been staring us in the face all along and we choose instead to roll the dice on democracy itself.