An image of former president Donald Trump wearing his signature red tie. His mouth is open as if yelling. jibberish is coming out of his mouth and floating onto newspaper

The Fourth Estate

Trump’s Extremism Isn’t a Footnote—It’s the Story

The media has normalized Trump’s extreme, outrageous statements, which has made them appear mundane—and now that coverage has the potential to help the wannabe autocrat at the voting booths this November.

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In response to former President Donald Trump’s scaremongering speech in which he claimed that “Hamas and Antifa will terrorize our streets”; vowed that the election would be his political enemies’ “Judgment Day”; referred to the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 as “hostages”; promised to give immunity to police officers; pledged to deport 18 million people; and spread racist tropes about “migrant crime” and people speaking “languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of,” The New York Times framed it as so:

At CPAC, Trump Invokes Clashing Visions of America’s Future.”

That’s more than a bit of an understatement. But we have come to expect it, I suppose.

Just a decade ago, a barrage of statements like these would have been considered outlandish. From his invocation of the specter of gangs and Antifa terrorizing the streets to predicting a new “Liberation Day” for his supporters, Trump’s rhetoric has escalated in its extremity. Yet, what’s equally troubling is the mainstream press’s treatment of these statements: a normalization that risks desensitizing the public to the dangers they pose.

Trump’s speech weaponized fear and misinformation, painting a dystopian picture of America under siege from within. Phrases like “weaponized law-enforcement hunts for conservatives” and “Hamas and Antifa will terrorize our streets” are not just fear-mongering; they’re strategic. They serve to rally his base by depicting a nation in crisis, one that only he can save. This narrative, while false, has been given a veneer of legitimacy through repeated coverage that fails to critically engage with his lies.

In its quest for balance—or fear of appearing biased—the mainstream media has frequently failed to challenge Trump’s narratives, instead giving airtime and column inches to his speeches without sufficient context or fact-checking. In doing so, journalists are inadvertently amplifying his message. This normalization process transforms his extreme statements that would have once sparked outrage into appearing mundane. The coverage of Trump’s CPAC speech is a prime example, with many outlets focusing on its political implications rather than its dangerous distortions of reality.

Complacency has real-world consequences. It emboldens those who espouse hate and violence, erodes public trust in democratic institutions, and deepens societal divisions. Trump’s reference to the January 6th insurrectionists as “J6 hostages” and his vilification of migrants as diseased are not mere rhetorical flourishes; they’re incitements that can inspire harmful actions.

This is not to say that all coverage has been bad. Even the “Clashing Visions of America’s Future” article referenced at the start of this piece has redeeming moments of truth-telling. For instance, the article notes that Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric sounds a lot like what he said in 2016 and 2020, filled with claims that turned out to be false:

In his 2020 campaign, Mr. Trump warned that Mr. Biden would “confiscate your guns,” and “destroy your suburbs.” He predicted that the economy would sink into a depression worse than the 1930s Great Depression and that the “stock market will crash.” A Biden presidency, he predicted four years ago, “would mean that America’s seniors have no air conditioning during the summer, no heat during the winter and no electricity during peak hours.” And, he warned in July 2020, “you will have no more energy coming out of the great state of Texas, out of New Mexico, out of anywhere.”

Some of those past predictions are now checkable, and have turned out to be fictions. The stock market has hit record highs under the Biden administration. Guns haven’t been confiscated. Air conditioning is as good or bad as it ever was. And under Mr. Biden, the United States is producing more oil—not only more than it did under Mr. Trump but more than any country ever has.

That’s great and all, but Trump’s reliance on false, extreme and apocalyptic rhetoric needs to be the story, not just a footnote in a story about “Clashing Visions for America’s Future.”

Failure to confront these narratives head-on leaves the public unprepared for the potential outcomes of a Trump victory in November. It’s not just about the return of a controversial figure to the White House; it’s about what his presidency would signify and enable: the further erosion of democratic institutions, the oppression of millions of people, and the potential for violence.

As we inch closer to the November election, the press must reassess its role in covering Trump. It’s not enough to simply report what he says; there must be a concerted effort to contextualize, analyze, and push back on false information. The public depends on the press not just for information but for the tools to critically engage with that information. Without this, democracy cannot function.

In the end, the normalization of extreme rhetoric is a choice, one that the media and the public must consciously reject. Only by acknowledging the gravity of Trump’s words and their potential impact can we hope to navigate the challenges ahead. It’s a difficult task, but the alternative—a society numbed to extremism and blind to its consequences—is much worse.

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