Hey kids! Have you ever asked yourself: Why exactly does Donald Trump have such a great shot at being re-elected — or more likely, “re-elected” — president in 2024, despite everything he did and didn’t do as president the first time around? One reason is that the Republican party is now a fascist cult of personality with him at the head of it, and cult members are notoriously impervious to facts and reason.
Now sure that’s a big factor, but there aren’t nearly enough MAGATS to get Trump re-elected, even with an electoral system that’s now so heavily rigged toward Republicans that the Democratic candidate can win the election by seven million votes and still come within 22,000 flipped votes of losing it anyway.
Another big reason why Trump has such a great shot is that there are millions upon millions of Americans who vote, and aren’t part of the GOP cult in any core or committed way, but who voted for and will vote for Trump anyway. These people have lots of names — “independents,” “swing voters,” “low information voters,” “the common clay of the West,” and so forth — and they are especially prone to be affected by background media atmospherics. We’re not talking about people who watch Fox eight hours a day or listen to Hate Radio in the car. We’re talking about voters who just have the vaguest sense of what’s going on, politically speaking. They barely pay attention, so how the big media outlets frame things at the highest level of generality has a strong indirect effect on their basic attitude toward politics.
These are people who probably can’t tell you how many houses of Congress there are and who believe things like “politicians are all the same,” which means it makes a big difference at the margin whether or not the Mainstream Media ™ described and describes Donald Trump accurately: that is, as the head of fascist cult of personality that’s committed to destroying liberal democracy. That description is no more partisan than describing Ottawa as the capital of Canada — in other words, it is or should be at this point a simple non-controversial fact.
But there’s a big problem here, which is that it’s an apparently unalterable axiom that there are two legitimate major parties in the USA, which means that describing the current situation accurately would violate that axiom, which in turn means that the Mainstream Media ™ simply can’t do that, or at least not in any sustained or coherent way. Sure they may accurately report incidents like Donald Trump attempting an autogolpe at the end of his presidential term, but very soon they’ll be back to the good ‘ol both sides narrative, in which Republican Daddies get if anything more positive coverage than “feckless” Democrats, because you know Both Sides.
Surely the astounding contrast between Donald Trump in 2020 and January of 2021 and Joe Biden in the months since would break this model though, right? I mean Joe Biden has been doing in my view a pretty good job by normal metrics of presidential performance, but that’s not even the point here: the point is that the contrast Normal President doing Normal Presidential Things in a Normal Way and Aspiring Fascist Dictator Donald Trump is just so extreme that the Mainstream Media ™ surely can’t just go back to their old ways, not in America in 2021?
Even the extraordinary news that jobless claims had dropped to the lowest level in 52 years came with a qualifier: “BUT, BUT, BUT…don’t expect [the numbers] to immediately change Americans’ negative perceptions of the economy.”
It isn’t just Politico. My impression of other outlets’ coverage of President Biden had been much the same: unrelentingly negative. Was it my imagination?
No, it wasn’t.
Artificial intelligence can now measure the negativity with precision. At my request, Forge.ai, a data analytics unit of the information company FiscalNote, combed through more than 200,000 articles — tens of millions of words — from 65 news websites (newspapers, network and cable news, political publications, news wires and more) to do a “sentiment analysis” of coverage. Using algorithms that give weight to certain adjectives based on their placement in the story, it rated the coverage Biden received in the first 11 months of 2021 and the coverage President Donald Trump got in the first 11 months of 2020.
The findings, painstakingly assembled by FiscalNote vice president Bill Frischling, confirmed my fear: My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.
After a honeymoon of slightly positive coverage in the first three months of the year, Biden’s press for the past four months has been as bad as — and for a time worse than — the coverage Trump received for the same four months of 2020.
Think about that. In 2020, Trump presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid–19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent white supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the “big lie,” the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office.
And yet Trump got press coverage as favorable as, or better than, Biden is getting today. Sure, Biden has had his troubles, with the delta variant, Afghanistan and inflation. But the economy is rebounding impressively, he has signed major legislation, and he has restored some measure of decency, calm and respect for democratic institutions.
In other words, American liberal democracy came within a fingernail’s length of being destroyed n that faraway time known as January of [checks notes] this year, and Donald Trump and the Republican party are both working feverishly to make sure it is destroyed the next time they get a bite at the apple, but this has done absolutely nothing to stop the Mainstream Media from falling all the way back into their Both Sides frame, even as Rupert Murdoch’s right wing scream machine and Mark Zuckerberg’s social network continue to hollow out the remnants of liberal democracy from the inside.
I suspect my peers across the media have fallen victim to our asymmetric politics. Biden governs under traditional norms, while Republicans run a shocking campaign to delegitimize him with one fabricated charge after another. This week, Republicans threatened a government shutdown to block Biden’s vaccine mandates, after a year of efforts to discourage vaccination. Yet, incredibly, they’re simultaneously blaming Biden for coronavirus deaths — deaths occurring almost entirely among the unvaccinated. “More people have died of covid under President Biden than did in all of 2020,” proclaimed Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), GOP conference chairman.
As Biden might say: C’mon, man.
Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.
The punch line here is that this is Dana Milbank!
Kill that calf and call the family round.