Watching the the news media react to Trump’s predictably oafish response to a question about the “peaceful transfer of power” has rekindled the anger I’d been worried about losing. To judge by the awed, comically appalled responses of pundits, you would think it had been the first time Trump had made a clumsy, small-fingered gesture in the direction of dictatorship, rather than just dispensing one more blob of the ego-fluffing nonsense that fills the space between his lies.
“We’re going to have to see what happens,” he said, in a response very like earlier responses, and completely in character. Much as he said at his last debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, “I will look at it at the time. I will keep you in suspense.” Very like what he said to Chris Wallace last month: “I have to see” and “it depends.” Maybe the extra fillip at the end about “it will be a continuation” was what did the trick.
Then and now, the media squawk with amazed disapproval at what amounted to a typically unimaginative thud of a cliff-hanger. It was the smug deflection of a veteran bullshitter, determined to grab your attention but incapable of following through—at least, in how we traditionally envision a coup. Trump is not going to grab the reins of power himself, though he might be seated behind Bill Barr, waving at imaginary crowds as Barr gallops over the rule of law.
Trump’s preening feints toward becoming a bona fide “strong man” (oh how he must love that term) are worth reporting on; they do have a real-life impact. Politicians and activists have been trying to use Trump’s disgust for the process as a lever to move people to the polls, and I cannot fault them for that. But, Jesus fucking Christ, if you’re worried about America sliding into authoritarianism, you are too late. Gawping at Trump’s gaseous daydreams of more power, as if they constituted a new scandal on their own, comfortably ignores the worst of it—the low-key constant nightmare that mainstream media glides right over on its cushion of class and status.
On CNN Wednesday night, a panel full of those educated adults marveled at how the “limousine ride from the White House to the site of the Inauguration”—during which the outgoing president and the incoming one engage, presumably, in some sort of exchange of Wifi passwords and promises to forward the mail—is itself a “hallmark of American democracy.” I guess they’re not wrong, but they really and truly said this as if it were a worthy thing!— rather than a symbol of the opulent machinery of power, rolling right along no matter who occupies the space inside, and no matter what kind of ghoulish ambitions the newly-installed occupant may entertain.
Given all we know now, the image of Obama and Trump riding along together should make you carsick, not nostalgic.
Alarmist clucking about Trump’s coy, sloppy dodges regarding “the peaceful transfer of power” is privilege, working to keep the focus safely on itself. It’s whiteness, working to steer clear of the dark swirls of self-implication that would necessarily come with reporting on the impact of Trump’s dumbshit authoritarianism. It’s the media getting high on its own crystalline self-righteousness: a comfortable sort of outrage, free of the self-examination that should be conjured by everything else that’s happening: police violence, white supremacy, economic inequality made exponentially more deadly by a global pandemic, the fires of climate change marching steadily closer, state-sponsored medical experimentation on the most vulnerable among us. And you’re warning about authoritarianism?
I don’t believe that telling people how bad things are is bound to depress them into inaction. It’s the truth. What I worry about is letting people believe we aren’t already in grievous trouble—that, surely, leads to inaction.
To the average citizen, sounding the alarm about impending fascism is not the same call to arms as it is to the denizens of the now-virtual green rooms of DC. If you’re able to basically go on living without having to think too much about the crimes committed in your name, if you’re focused on surviving just your own pocket of trouble and not overly exposed to the pain of others, ideological shifts are just soap operas. The role of journalists is not to warn what might happen if we fall completely under the rule of the ruthless and cruel; the role of journalists is to show where that cruelty is already in effect, and to make us understand what can be done. Then we can’t help but care.
Look in the streets. What does this country really know about the “peaceful transfer of power,” anyway? We were founded in revolution, expanded by genocide, knitted together by bloody in-fighting; we have only been dragged slowly closer to true equality by what amounts to hand-to-hand, if massively asymmetric, combat. The “peaceful transfer of power” that happens between presidents is the exception to how power works in America, not the rule.