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A horrific sequel
Lately, much of the attention of the Washington establishment, and the media ecosystem that feeds it, has been focused on debating (or diminishing) the electoral prospects of President Biden. There is no shortage of diving boards from which to plunge into the punditry.
One jumping-off point is a series of polls that show Biden in dire straits. These are accompanied by the predictable news reports that quote Democratic “elected officials,” “party leaders,” “campaign strategists,” or even “people close to Biden,” who decline to go on the record when they echo the prevailing wisdom that he is in trouble.
Then there is a rash of third-party candidates threatening to further splinter an already fractured electorate. For example, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s decision not to seek reelection is being framed as both an omen of Biden’s weakness and a threat, because Manchin could represent yet another possible rival for the presidency. Meanwhile, the decisive victories of Democrats across multiple state elections last week have already disappeared in the news cycle’s rearview mirror.
At this point in the campaign season, it is typical for an incumbent president to face this level of scrutiny, second-guessing, and soul searching. Usually, the opposition party is far from deciding on a nominee, and horse race coverage of the current occupant of the Oval Office is catnip for pundits looking for things on which to opine. Furthermore, it is easier to judge an incumbent than a challenger, because we have a lot of data points for how the former would perform in the job of president of the United States — a role without parallel in the world.
But all of these conventions should be thrown out the door for 2024. For starters, while there is a pantomime of a primary campaign going on for the Republican nomination, it has about as much uncertainty as a Harlem Globetrotters game. There is a frontrunner so far ahead that he feels no need to even show up for the debates. And he has paid no price for skipping them. Furthermore, we don’t have to guess what it would be like to have him as president. We’ve already lived through that nightmare once.
But here is where things get even more grim. If Trump were to be reelected, it would be worse, much worse, than the first time. That’s not idle speculation or fantastical conjecture. Trump’s not hiding the truth that he would end American democracy.
We’ve already seen how lies about the 2020 election have become a litmus test for Republican elected officials — including the new speaker of the House. And a recent Washington Post report details how Trump and his allies plan to use the Department of Justice to go after his political rivals, in the kind of revenge politics one finds in dictatorships. Then, in an interview with the Spanish language news service Univision, Trump doubled down on weaponizing the DOJ to attack his opponents.
In a Veterans Day rant in New Hampshire, Trump called upon the authoritarian playbook of dehumanizing political opponents. He railed against “the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country” and added, “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within.”
Of course, Trump has always been a master of projection. His eagerness to weaponize the DOJ stems from his misplaced sense of victimhood — his belief that he has been targeted with his numerous indictments. The legal jeopardy he faces stems from his attempts to tear down American democracy once. In his rage, he promises to escalate. That has been his playbook in business and politics.
Trump is who he is. And that means it is all the more important for the press not to normalize this election. Yes, there will be polls. And yes, there is a horse race. And yes, reporters can and should cover Biden and his policies with objectivity, to the extent humanly possible. But there should be no diminishing what the other candidate intends to do if he regains the White House. There should be no acceptance of the fact that large swaths of one of our two major political parties are denying the results of a free and fair election.
Recently, reporters are becoming bolder in demanding Republicans state that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen. That is a positive trend and should be followed up with questions about Trump’s attacks on democracy and the rule of law.
This is not simply an election between a Democrat and a Republican or an incumbent and a challenger. This is not primarily about weighing polls and voter enthusiasm in battleground states. This should not be reduced to comparing advertising dollars or voter registration numbers. This is about a vote that will decide the future of our nation in ways unlike any since the Civil War.
Trump isn’t hiding his intentions. There is no excuse for minimizing the threat he poses. What’s at stake in the upcoming election is the continuity of America’s precarious experiment in democracy.
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