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Déjà Vu

How Can This Country Possibly Be Electing Trump Again?

How the media has failed, and what the Democrats need to do


With democracy itself on the line, the 2024 election will almost certainly be the nation’s most consequential since 1860. It will also be the weirdest. There are two fundamental facts about this campaign that do not appear to be making much of an impact on what, at least today, seems to be close to a majority of the electorate. The first and more obvious one is that few people in history have ever been less qualified to hold a position of any responsibility, much less the most powerful position in the world, than Donald Trump. If elected, he will certainly deploy that power to destroy virtually everything Americans have historically held dear about the nation’s democratic traditions.

The second, less obvious, but no less objective fact is that Joe Biden has been a remarkably good president. Not everything has worked out, and one can certainly disagree with many of his decisions. His embrace of Bibi Netanyahu has clearly had disastrous consequences for Israel, Gaza, the United States, and likely for his own reelection prospects. But in terms of the way presidents are traditionally measured, Biden has been a smash. The U.S. economy is the envy of the world. Yes, inflation is higher than one would like, but jobs are plentiful, and so are raises for the people in them; wages are rising faster than inflation, as it happens. Violent crime is way down. Infrastructure investments are way up since 2020. Student loans are being forgiven. The labor movement is rebounding. We are leading the world in defending democracy in Ukraine. And yet, the danger of a Trump takeover remains as high as ever.

Consider just a few of Trump’s qualities that quite recently would have disqualified him in the eyes of all responsible voices in the discourse. I have no room to do justice to even a fraction, so I’ll have to stick to just keywords: insurrectionist; election denier; pathological liar; corrupt; racist; antisemite; (digital) rapist; serial adulterer; Islamophobe; con man; tax cheat; patsy to dictator; wannabe dictator; isolationist; bully; psychopathically narcissist; sociopath; almost certainly medically demented. We all know I could go on. (I haven’t even mentioned the Democrats’ single best issue: Trump’s proud boast that he was able to “kill Roe v. Wade.”)

So, what gives? Have roughly half of Americans of voting age lost their minds? Is Joe Biden really this bad a candidate? How is all this possible?

Multiple phenomena are at work, but the two most important are these: First is the fact that members of the mainstream media whose job it is to both inform and contextualize the nation’s politics have lost their nerve. Terrified of accusations of being “out of touch” at best and “liberally biased” at worst, they have abdicated any responsibility to render even the most fundamental judgments of what is and isn’t true when it comes to Trump. His lies and those of his representatives are repeated verbatim without challenge, much less correction. “Fact-check” columns after the fact do little to undo the damage of the original lies, threats, and plainly absurd statements Trump makes literally by the minute. What’s more, they routinely clean up his statements for him, making him appear far more rational and reasonable than he is, ignoring his consistently mangled syntax and nonsensical assertions (as well as his frequent confusion about who is president and who he is running against).

This mainstream media fear is the product of nearly a half-century of Republicans “working the refs,” complaining that liberal elites cannot understand or give fair coverage to the millions of Americans holding conservative views. Ben Bradlee by and large endorsed this view back when Ronald Reagan won his 1980 landslide, and it became part and parcel of mainstream journalistic practice with Trump’s surprise 2016 victory.

As William Greider, then a top editor at The Washington Post, noted, Reagan’s electoral success had been “quite traumatic for the press, editors, and reporters ... because it seemed to confirm the message of the critics that the press was out of touch with the rest of the country.” He added, “It was a sense of ‘My God, they’ve elected this guy who nine months ago we thought was a hopeless clown.… [T]here’s something going on here, and we don’t understand, and we don’t want to get in the way.’” Bradlee, Greider’s boss, later observed a post-Watergate “return to deference” in the media, attributing this to “a subconscious feeling ... that we were dealing with someone this time who really, really, really disapproved of us, disliked us, distrusted us, and that we ought not give him any opportunities to see he was right.”

Second in importance is the Democrats’ combination of an embarrassment of riches in terms of issues and inability to focus on the few—say, three of them—that would convince those famous swing voters that the choice between Trump and Biden is really no choice at all. Biden is a highly skilled politician with mainstream views who makes mistakes and has lost a step or two to age, yes, but who has proved himself extremely competent in office. He leads a party that is, yes, divided over Israel and Gaza but united in support of the rule of law, the norms of democracy, and the value of consensus. Trump and many of his followers are the kinds of people one routinely meets in a prison psych ward.

What Biden and company must find a way to do is to herd those Democratic cats into repeating a single set of mantras that force the mainstream media to focus on the fundamental sorts of future each man offers: the imperfect versus the apocalyptic. Three issues, tops: abortion and two more. Hammer them home and save the country.