In late September 2016, Salena Zito wrote glowingly in The Atlantic about Donald Trump on the campaign trail in Pittsburgh and famously postulated that “the press takes him literally, but not seriously,” while “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Leaving aside Zito’s kid-glove treatment of Trump, she wasn’t wrong about the media, which even now—a chaotic presidency, a couple impeachments, an insurrection, and four criminal indictments later—isn’t taking the former guy returning to power “seriously” enough. With the 2024 cycle in full swing, he’s being largely covered like a normal candidate rather than someone who tried to end democracy. As Trump recently tossed out wild accusations of “treason” this past weekend, The Nation’s Jeet Heer noted how the Drudge Report “is more accurately conveying the gravity of Trump’s threat to USA democracy than the mainstream media.”
I can’t speak to what lurks in the hearts of political reporters and editors, but one has to wonder why there isn’t more coverage about Trump musing about sentencing the nation’s highest ranking general to death than, say, the age of the current president. “Mark Milley, who led perhaps the most embarrassing moment in American history with his grossly incompetent implementation of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, costing many lives, leaving behind hundreds of American citizens, and handing over BILLIONS of dollars of the finest military equipment ever made, will be leaving the military next week. This will be a time for all citizens of the USA to celebrate!” Trump wrote Friday on Truth Social, a day after an Atlantic story about how Milley, the soon-to-be-retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had “protected the Constitution” from the former president.
“This guy turned out to be a Woke train wreck who, if the Fake News reporting is correct, was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States,” Trump continued. “This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH! A war between China and the United States could have been the result of this treasonous act. To be continued!!!”
Oddly, Trump’s dangerous rant was not treated as the major news it absolutely should have been. “Only CNN and MSNBC covered Trump’s inflammatory Truth Social post about the general,” Media Matters noted Tuesday, “while broadcast news outlets and Fox News completely ignored it.”
Someone who surely didn’t ignore Trump’s post was Paul Gosar, the white nationalist adjacent congressman from Arizona. He wrote Sunday in his congressional newsletter how “in a better society, quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be hung.” The notion of a Republican front-runner floating the idea of executing the chair of the joint chiefs of staff—a scenario echoed by a sitting member of Congress—is the kind of thing that should make your blood run cold. This is not what happens in a normal, healthy functioning democracy. We, in the media, need to be clear-eyed here.
One of the few TV hosts who captured the gravity of the situation was MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who told his audience on Tuesday, “That’s not a dog whistle. That is an invitation. Just like ‘come on January 6, it’s going to be wild,’ when he says things like Mitch McConnell has a, and then an all caps, a DEATH WISH, that is an invitation for his people to step up and assassinate Mitch McConnell, or General Milley. And you can ask the question, where are these Republicans? Why aren’t they critical of Donald Trump for saying that about General Milley?” That certainly seems like a good question to pose to Republican lawmakers, many of whom are already backing Trump’s 2024 bid.
Speaking of MSNBC, Trump “truthed”—oh, the irony—on Sunday that the cable network and its broadcast sibling, NBC “are almost all dishonest and corrupt, but [owner] Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC NEWS, and in particular MSNBC, often and correctly referred to as MSDNC (Democrat National Committee!), should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason.’” His attack on the First Amendment continued with a threat, “I say up front, openly, and proudly, that when I WIN the Presidency of the United States, they and others of the LameStream Media will be thoroughly scrutinized for their knowingly dishonest and corrupt coverage of people, things, and events.”
Trump routinely attacked journalists during his four years in office, and, taking a page from Josef Stalin, declared the media to be the “enemy of the American people.” Now, eyeing a return to the White House, Trump is only ramping up the anti-press rhetoric by accusing a media company of “Country Threatening Treason.” Whether Republicans support Trump’s view could be another good line of inquiry for the press.
Joe Biden certainly doesn’t agree, marking yet another clear distinction between the two likely general election candidates when it comes to democracy and free speech. “President Biden swore an oath to uphold our Constitution and protect American Democracy. Freedom of the press is a fundamental Constitutional right,” the White House said in a statement. “To abuse presidential power and violate the Constitutional rights of reporters would be an outrageous attack on our democracy and the rule of law. Presidents must always defend Americans’ freedoms—never trample on them for selfish, small, and dangerous political purposes.”
As anyone who lived through the past eight years can attest, you underestimate Trump at your own peril. By glossing over the unhinged things Trump is saying and doing, we in the mainstream media are enabling him to do even more.
Perhaps the largest underreported story out of Trumpworld right now is his hand in the coming government shutdown. It’s very likely the government will shut down on Saturday because Republicans in the House are refusing to fund it. (Something else many in the news media aren’t saying explicitly.) Matt Gaetz, who has emerged as Kevin McCarthy’s biggest antagonist, accusing the Speaker of empty politicking rather than accomplishing things for the right, certainly isn’t ignoring the former president. “Trump Opposes the Continuing Resolution. Hold the line,” Gaetz recently posted on X, along with a screenshot of Trump’s Truth Social post urging Republicans to “defund these political prosecutions against me and other Patriots.” Gaetz, part of the burn-it-all-down caucus, appears inspired by the biggest arsonist: Donald Trump.
After so many years of Trump’s outrageous comments, lies, grievances, and threats, it’s hard to be shocked anymore. And perhaps that’s our problem. This is the most likely Republican nominee, and a man who is leading Biden in some polls. Trump is not getting better—if anything he’s getting worse. Beyond the treason talk, he recently engaged in antisemitism toward liberal Jews on Rosh Hashanah—“Let’s hope you learned from your mistake & make better choices moving forward!”—he suggested—and he seemed ready to buy a glock Monday in South Carolina while out on bail, which could be a federal gun crime, you know, like the one Hunter Biden is currently being charged with. (A Trump spokesperson later clarified that he didn’t buy it, but “simply indicated that he wanted one.”)
Now, I understand the mainstream media may be bored with the crazy, but our country is once again sleepwalking into disaster, and if journalists aren’t clear about the stakes of a second Trump presidency, it will be, at least partially, our fault.