Trump 2.0: Establishment media gear up for another ‘end of democracy’
This op-ed is part of a series exploring what a second term would look like for either President Biden or former President Trump.
Donald Trump had multiple foes while winning the presidency in 2016. He had to overcome his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, of course, but he also had to contend with an establishment media intent on “saving democracy” from the real estate mogul. Once elected, Trump dealt with an amped up media machine more focused on demonizing the political outsider than reporting about President Trump’s actual governance.
Trump’s coverage by the press was decidedly negative from the outset. Both the Pew Research Center and the Shorenstein Center at Harvard produced research showing Trump news accounts in the first days of his presidency were highly unfavorable. The press provided full-bore coverage of the Russian collusion story/non-story and made media celebrities of characters such as Michael Avenatti and Adam Schiff, all designed to diminish the Trump presidency.
Since the 2020 election, the Trump-obsessed establishment media have continued to keep the former president prominently displayed. Trump’s extensive list of indictments is newsworthy on several levels, of course, but the media’s compulsion for saturation Trump coverage has necessarily led to less media focus on countless other items that need space in the news agenda.
Never has a former president generated so much media fascination, virtually all of it bad.
Should Trump somehow survive another year’s worth of demonization and get a surprise election victory in 2024, expect the self-righteous media establishment to again go fully bonkers, dialing up Trump antagonism to new levels of rage.
None of this discussion is about Trump as a person or a politician. It is about journalistic activism and the news industry’s desire to pick winners and losers and influence the course of politics, as opposed to reporting facts, presenting a news agenda of heft, and letting citizens make their own decisions. Trump is not a martyr and not a figure who needs sympathy. He has often created his own problems with his mercurial personality and caustic rhetoric. Yet, the media’s approach to concoct and drive an “evil Trump” narrative hardly serves the interests of the nation — particularly when apparently about half of the nation supports the former president, flaws and all.
It is safe to say that most presidents throughout history have had their problems with the press. Trump was unique, however, in that he openly expressed his antipathy for the Fourth Estate, bashing reporters in public with angry outbursts about fake news, and labeling the press “enemy of the people.” It is little wonder establishment media took offense and went after him. A second Trump term, without a doubt, would see further escalation of this brawl.
It is worth noting that for all of Trump’s anti-press pronouncements, the media not only survived during the Trump administration, but in many ways thrived. The percentage of Americans who closely followed the news of the day was higher in the midst of the Trump presidency than it was before or after. Trump was good for clicks on news sites and ratings on cable news channels. He barked a lot about the media, but never really bit. Even the Trump White House attempt to revoke the press credentials of CNN’s Jim Acosta failed. In spite of Trump’s anti-press bluster, the news industry never backed off or was intimidated. As far as press freedoms go, Trump has never become a “threat to democracy.”
The Biden administration, for its part, has played with the notion of establishing a Disinformation Governance Board that would manipulate content in the public sphere. The Biden White House has also worked to manipulate and pressure social media outlets for its own messaging purposes. The Obama White House surveilled journalists and was criticized by the Committee to Protect Journalists for its lack of transparency and aggressive pursuit of leakers. Trump’s administration was less dangerous in disrupting press freedoms and the flow of information into the public sphere.
A second Trump presidency would likely be chaotic and continue the polarized state of affairs in the nation. If that were to happen, it would behoove the establishment media to avoid the temptation to return to simplistic demonizing narratives about Trump. Instead, news coverage of a Trump return to the White House should focus on topics that are important to the voters who would have planted Trump back in the White House. Those Americans should not be dismissed as kooks or deplorables. They are concerned about the border, national security, the economy and America’s future.
There will be plenty of news to cover without obsessing over a guy who posts outbursts on social media.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.