Over the past week, Donald Trump promised to be a “dictator” on two different occasions. Sadly, that’s not a completely unexpected sentence to write given that he and his allies haven’t been shy about planning an authoritarian second term, from installing MAGA loyalists throughout the government to using the Department of Justice to target political enemies. Fox News host Sean Hannity, who first blamed “the media” for focusing on this scary second-term agenda, asked, “Under no circumstances—you are promising America tonight—you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Trump responded, “Except for day one.”
The “dictator” response, accompanied by a vow to “close the border” and “drill, drill, drill,” was greeted by applause by the Fox audience. Of course the audience has been trained to love autocracy, with former host Tucker Carlson having boosted strongman rulers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
No longer the party of low taxes or small government, the GOP is the party of punishing your enemies. And the Republican base has been told by Trump himself that his political adversaries are “vermin,” echoing the likes of Adolf Hitler. By othering his opponents, Trump is able to get his base to a place where they would support something that, in normal times, they might find morally reprehensible.
Jason Stanley, a Yale professor and author of How Fascism Works, described Trumpism as “a cult of the leader who promises national restoration from supposed national humiliation,” from liberals, leftists, minorities, and feminists. “He promises to use state violence against these supposed national enemies,” Stanley added. “He represents democratic forces as leftists destroying the country.” Trumpism, he said, is “antidemocratic by nature.”
Yet many in the media seem absolutely allergic to calling Trump what he is. After the dictator comment, CNN ran with the headline, “Trump sidesteps question when asked if he plans to abuse power if reelected.” But Trump didn’t “sidestep” the question; he answered by vowing to be a “dictator,” even if, supposedly, for one day. (He’d double-down on the comment days later at a Republican gathering.) Over on PBS, New York Times columnist David Brooks mused, “I guess I take him literally, but not seriously on this one. I think it was a joke. I think he was just playing to the crowd. I mean, he was telling a joke.” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart pushed back immediately, “He’s not joking. And if he is joking, the joke’s not funny.”
I understand how hard it is to do live television and I certainly have said the wrong thing before or understated something. But I’m struck by those in the media who seem desperate to give a man who incited an insurrection to try and remain in power the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, the news media can be ill-equipped to cover deviations from norm, with journalists framing politics in America’s two-party system as a debate between “two sides” (even if one is abandoning democratic principles). And straight-news journalists appear terrified of being called biased or partisan.
“It seems almost a part of the mainstream media’s DNA to try to normalize Trump and to treat his most outrageous and dangerous comments as not too big a deal,” Margaret Sullivan, the executive director of the Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University, told me. “I see some improvement on this but definitely not enough.”
Republican lawmakers have also brushed off Trump’s autocratic comments. “I wouldn’t overreact to every word he says,” said Kansas’s Roger Marshall, one of eight senators who tried to overturn the 2020 election after Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden. Trump, he told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, is “going to be the president of national security.” Other Republicans described Trump’s antidemocratic rhetoric to CNN’s Manu Raju as “entertaining” (Michael McCaul), “a joke” (Lindsey Graham), a “unique” expression (James Comer). Even Mitt Romney, one of the few Republicans willing to hold Trump accountable said, “Sometimes a little baby will spout off all sorts of words that you don’t take him literally or seriously, and that’s a bit of what we’re seeing.”
Meanwhile, on the GOP debate stage you’ll find candidates mimicking Trump’s antidemocratic pseudo-populism. Ron DeSantis, like an Orbán in cowboy boots with lifts, has already acted like an autocrat on the state level with attacks on education and LGBTQ+ rights. Then there’s Vivek Ramaswamy, who at Wednesday night’s debate, bizarrely suggested the January 6 attack was an “inside job” while pushing the “great replacement theory.” This racist theory that white Americans are being intentionally “replaced” would’ve seemed inconceivable for a mainstream political party to embrace prior to Trump’s rise in 2016.
On the same stage, you had one Republican, Chris Christie, who didn’t dismiss Trump’s rhetoric. “Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history, and that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim, empowers him,” Christie said. He added, “This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct.” Of course, Christie isn’t going to be the Republican nominee, as Trump continues to trounce him in the polls, along with the rest of the primary field.
We find ourselves at a precipice. With Trump making his autocratic tendencies crystal clear, the news media needs to take him literally and seriously—especially as his antidemocratic impulses have infected the rest of the party. Republicans have purged those in their ranks who have sided with democracy over Trump, like Liz Cheney, who is now sounding the alarms, while elevating an election-denier like Mike Johnson to Speaker of the House. It’s time for the media to warn voters of the stakes of this election, one of which is whether there will still be democratic elections.
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