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Sleepwalking into fascism

4 min read

There's not much to say about Thursday's CNN-inflicted presidential debate except that if you want a crash course in how democracies slide into fascism, you might just pop the tape in and let Jake Tapper show you how it's done.

From the first minutes, the debate's moderators made it clear that there was going to be no value judgments imposed on candidates who misled Americans or told them outright falsehoods. American "news" outlets have remained quite steady in their conviction that whether our leaders tell the truth or perpetrate the most horrible of hoaxes is of no concern to them, their alleged jobs are to present the truth and the propaganda as of equal public value, both equally legitimate approaches to governing the public.

So that's what we got. The convicted felon still facing a someday-trial for attempting to overthrow the United States government because he was sad was presented with all the pomp and pageantry of any other presidential candidate, where he lied repeatedly, told fantasies that went well into the territory of delusion, simply refused to answer most of the questions put to him, and enjoyed the invaluable public gift of having the public faces of American journalism accept the falsehoods and thank him for saying them.

The public message from "news network" CNN and its tree-stump moderators was simple: Yes, Trump's continued gaslighting of the American people is just as legitimate a use of would-be government power as that of any other candidate. Yes, the viewing public is still allowed—no, is still strongly encouraged—to treat the insurrection-launching now-felon Trump as they would a Mitt Romney, or a John McCain, or a David Duke.

That is a journalistic choice. The comical declarations that the purpose of a "free press" is primarily to expose corruption and tell the public when they are being lied to or propagandized hold no weight when that supposed press instead sees its major role as one of signal-boosting the propaganda rather than confronting it.

Media companies have been presented the same question that the Republican Party itself was faced with: At what point does the behavior of Donald Trump and his wretched gaggle of democracy-dismantlers become so egregious that he ought to be cut loose, rather than continually legitimized? The Party has made its choice based on its own needs and ambitions; the media, however, has no obligation to follow.

There have been any number of points at which American journalism could have cut Trump loose as so illegitimate a choice to run a democracy that they would not abide being a part of it. When Trump rallied a known-armed crowd to storm the Capitol and intimidate the assembled lawmakers into voiding an American election based on nothing more than his own propagation of provable hoaxes, that was a marker that "journalists" could have laid down: You can nominate this destructive menace again if you want to, American far-right, but we as media companies will not treat a malevolent propagandist who stokes violence for his own ambitions to be treated as just another "candidate" being put forward.

The same could have been done when Trump was convicted of nearly three dozen felonies. The same could have been done when it was revealed that he intentionally hid classified documents from the FBI, lying to them in order to conceal them. The full-throated Trump embrace of plainly illegal or horrific new "agendas" that include purging non-loyalists from federal government positions and the promised "jailing" of his political opponents—those clearly fascist vows, incompatible with our very democracy and certainly with our supposedly vaunted Constitution, could by themselves be counted as disqualifying.

The Constitution sets very few limits on who is allowed to become a president. That does not mean Americans of integrity must stand by while literally any malevolent crank demands the role.

The debate could have been in majority part a questioning of a fascist candidate's clearly illegal promised actions; it would have served America, and Republicans would have little grounds to complain that giving their sneering felon a chance to defend his most "controversial" positions was a media set-up. Debate moderators could have plainly rejected Trump's answers when he lied, half-deliriously, about the plain facts of the Jan. 6 insurrection, rather than simply providing Trump a grander venue to repeat his falsehoods.

There is nothing that says a "news network" must associate themselves with a fascist who already provoked one insurrection and smugly refuses to say he won't do it again. Jake Tapper does not have to fete the man; he could have refused.

At any point, "news networks" can simply throw the red flag and say, to the public: We're not doing this anymore. Republicans can run this seditionist crapsack for president even as he faces trial in multiple courtrooms, but a Free Press is perfectly free to warn the public of the dangers posed rather than playing house with the felon as if, indeed, the man who launched an attack on our government is just as valid a candidate as any other.

He's not. Why are you pretending he is, Jake Tapper. How far do you intend to debase yourself, Dana Bash. How do you even live with yourselves, after agreeing to host a debate in which you would explicitly not challenge false and propagandistic claims but rather pass them to the public unaltered.

There are no rules that say the supposed news media—if we even have one, which is hotly debatable—must abide promised or real criminality in government if one party thinks it ought to happen. Trump incited an attempted insurrection; there's no legitimate debate about that. None at all. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and all the other supposed protectors of public integrity could refuse to treat an insurrectionist felon as just another flavor of political candidate—and not only are their corporate heads too cowardly to do so, they justify their cowardice with claims that the job of a free press isn't to inform the public, only to act as surrogates for the powerful.

So the press lends Trump their legitimacy, rather than stripping it from him. And it is a choice, and the "free press" notion that sharing the lies of the powerful is more important than making judgments on their lies is how democracies fade, waver, and die.


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