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The Case for Amplifying Trump's Insanity
The "Banality of Crazy" has warped American politics, as few voters recognize just how deranged, delusional, and dangerous Donald Trump is...because the press rarely reports on his routine insanity.
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Sometimes, you have to write when you’re angry.
I hate writing about Donald Trump. I hate the mental energy he siphons out of my brain, the depressing facts about him stubbornly lodged inside of my head, of all the vile, sociopathic things he’s said and done. I loathe living with the revelation that so many fellow citizens celebrate his authoritarian viciousness in which, as Adam Serwer put it, the “cruelty is the point.”
But most of all, I hate that he might win.
So, write about him I must, because one man—and the dangerous movement he’s unleashed—poses an existential risk to American democracy, and by extension, to the stability and prosperity of our world.
Failing to Meet the Moment
We live in dangerous times — when citizens need top quality information to make informed, wise choices. But the press is failing to meet the moment. This isn’t some cheap shot at “the media.” It’s a good faith critique of a key democratic institution that hasn’t adapted enough to a dangerous authoritarian threat.
There are now two leading candidates for the American presidency.
One of them is a 77 year-old racist, misogynist bigot who has been found liable for rape, who incited a deadly, violent insurrection aimed at overturning a democratic election, who has committed mass fraud for personal enrichment, who is facing 91 separate counts of felony criminal charges against him, and who has overtly discussed his authoritarian strategies for governing if he returns to power.
The other is 80 years old with mainstream Democratic party views who sometimes misspeaks or trips. (There may be other reasons to criticize Joe Biden, but the main one discussed in the press is his age).
One of those two candidates faces relentless newspaper columns and TV pundit “takes” arguing that he should drop out of the race. (Spoiler alert: it’s somehow *not* the racist authoritarian sexual abuse fraudster facing 91 felony charges).
The False Hope of “Ignore Him”
On Friday night, Donald Trump gave a chillingly dark speech which few Americans know about.
He pledged to get tough on crime by executing people for petty crimes like shoplifting.
He joked about Paul Pelosi, the elderly husband of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was nearly beaten to death by a MAGA conspiracist who bludgeoned Pelosi’s skull with a hammer. (The baying crowd found Trump’s joke hilarious, laughing with glee at the prospect of an innocent elderly man nearly being assassinated).
Then, showing his intellectual acumen and flashing his firm grip on reality, Trump told the California crowd that he had an ingenious plan for fighting forest fires which involved…watering the forests so that the ground would be damp. (This is an additional strategy beyond his plan to “rake the forests,” which he previously suggested; American forests cover 800 million acres of land).
These dark and bizarre comments follow shortly after Trump floated the idea, on his social media network Truth Social, of executing America’s outgoing top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Trump wrote that Milley’s phone call to reassure China in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH.” (The phone call was, in fact, explicitly authorized by Trump-administration officials).
As I wrote last week in The Atlantic:
And yet, none of the nation’s front pages blared “Trump Suggests That Top General Deserves Execution” or “Former President Accuses General of Treason.” Instead, the post barely made the news. Most Americans who don’t follow Trump on social media probably don’t even know it happened.
Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous, not just because it is the exact sort that incites violence against public officials but also because it shows just how numb the country has grown toward threats more typical of broken, authoritarian regimes. The United States is not just careening toward a significant risk of political violence around the 2024 presidential election. It’s also mostly oblivious to where it’s headed.
What is going on? How is it possible that the leading candidate to become president of the United States can float the prospect of executing a general and the media response is…crickets?
How is it possible that it’s not front page news when a man who soon may return to power calls for law enforcement to kill people for minor crimes? And why do so few people question Trump’s mental acuity rather than Biden’s, when Trump proposes delusional, unhinged plans for forest management and warns his supporters that Biden is going to lead us into World War II (which would require a time machine), or wrongly claims that he defeated Barack Obama in 2016.
On the political left, there has long been a steady drumbeat of admonishment on social media for those who highlight Trump’s awful rhetoric. Whenever I tweet about Trump’s dangerous language, there’s always the predictable refrain from someone who replies: “Don’t amplify him! You’re just spreading his message.”
The press, to an astonishing extent, has followed that admonishment. I looked at the New York Times for mention of Trump calling to execute shoplifters, or water the forests, or how he thinks an 82 year-old man getting his skull smashed in his own home by a lunatic with a hammer is hilarious. Nothing. I couldn’t find it.
If it was covered, it was buried deep. Scrolling through my New York Times app on Saturday, I saw dozens of political stories before getting to a piece titled “The Pumpkin Spice Latte Will Outlive Us All” and “DogTV is TV for Dogs. Except When It’s For People.” But there was nothing about Trump’s speech.
This approach has backfired. It’s bad for democracy. The “Don’t Amplify Him” argument is disastrous. We need to amplify Trump’s vile rhetoric more, because it will turn persuadable voters off to his cruel message.
Right now, Trump is still popular, still getting his message out. The people most likely to be radicalized by him, or to act on his incitement already hear him loud and clear.
Meanwhile, with the broader public, he’s on pace to either win, or to turn the 2024 election into a nail-biter. But here’s the truth: when the press doesn’t cover his deranged incitements to violence, people who follow politics closely still find out about it. I knew about Trump’s Friday night speech. You may have heard of it. But what percentage of the US public knows about him calling to execute a general? Five percent? Less?
Most voters don’t think about politics in their daily lives. Only the big stories that make headlines cut through. And for those hundreds of millions of Americans, they have no clue that Trump wants to kill shoplifters, or thinks it’s funny that an innocent man nearly died after being hit on the head with a hammer. Instead, many think of Trump as a rough-around-the-edges guy, but not someone who’s actively dangerous. Plenty hide behind their ignorance of his worst, vilest behavior to justify voting for him.
Consider this: Americans soured on Trump when he held daily press conferences about covid-19, because they saw him unscripted and unvarnished. When he proposed injecting disinfectant to “clean” the body or using a “very powerful light” to cure covid in a patient, ordinary people saw the true Trump—and they didn’t like him very much.
Maybe, just maybe, it would be better for all of us if they knew about the other insane, dangerous rhetoric he spews on a daily basis. Maybe it would be better if voters couldn’t claim ignorance of Trump’s disturbing cruelty.
The “Banality of Crazy”
There’s a puzzle at the heart of Trump news and it’s this: why doesn’t the press go FULL BLOCK CAPITALS when a leading presidential candidate, yet again, incites violence?
If Joe Biden called to execute shoplifters, do you think there’d be a big headline in the New York Times, or do you think you’d have to scroll well past the articles on pumpkin spice lattes and DogTV to find out about it?
We all know the answer.
When Joe Biden didn’t trip but nearly tripped last week, it was headline news. How absurd is that? A candidate who didn’t quite fall over is a bigger news story than a candidate calling to execute shoplifters? (For the record, roughly ten percent of the US population shoplifts, so millions would face potential execution under Trump’s proposal).
This is what I call the Banality of Crazy—and it’s warping the way that Americans think about politics in the Trump and post-Trump era.
According to the old saying, there’s no headline in the papers for “Dog Bites Man,” but there is for “Man Bites Dog.” The idea is that the press covers the unusual rather than the routine, even if the routine story is more important than the unusual one.
(It’s worth noting, however, that the Biden “scandal” that made headlines within hours of Trump being found liable for massive financial fraud was a literal “Dog Bites Man” story about Commander Biden, the president’s bite-happy German Shepherd. Seriously, go to Google News and search “Biden dog” and “Trump shoplifters” and see the difference in the results. It’s so depressing).
The Golden Retriever Press
Keeping with our canine theme, I explained how this press dynamic currently operates in contemporary American news, again, in The Atlantic:
Trump scandals have become predictably banal. And American journalists have become golden retrievers watching a tennis-ball launcher. Every time they start to chase one ball, a fresh one immediately explodes into view, prompting a new chase.
Eventually, chasing tennis balls gets old. We become more alive to virtually any distraction: The media fixate on John Fetterman’s hoodie instead of on stories about the relentless but predictable risk of Trump-inspired political violence.
In ordinary times, this approach may be ill-advised, but not dangerous. Today, it’s dangerous. By breathlessly covering every minor gaffe by Joe Biden while ignoring unhinged incitements to violence by Trump, most voters never see the sides of Trump that should most worry them. This creates plausible deniability for voters, where they can say “He doesn’t seem too bad — both candidates are flawed, but I’m going with Trump.”
My view is this: if someone wants to vote for a cruel sociopathic authoritarian, they should do so without being able to pretend they don’t know what they’re supporting. There should be a social stigma for voting for Trump, because what he stands for is so far outside the bounds of acceptable democratic politics anywhere else in the world. But that can’t work unless everyone is aware of Trump’s increasingly violent, deranged insanity.
Instead, the press has succumbed to the numbing effect of the Banality of Crazy, once reporting on every single Trump tweet in early 2017 because it was unusual, but now ignoring even the most dangerous policy proposals by an authoritarian who is on the cusp of once again becoming the most powerful man in the world—precisely because it happens, like clockwork, almost every day.
The Four Kinds of Trump Voters
Heading into 2024, there are—by my count—four main kinds of Trump voters, with decreasing levels of devotion.
The MAGA Mob
Vote Red Until I’m Dead
The MAGA Mob are often referred to as Trump’s base. They probably comprise between 20 and 25 percent of the electorate. These are people that Adam Serwer was talking about when he said “the cruelty is the point.” They are the ones who laugh at the jokes about Paul Pelosi being beaten with a hammer and who think Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people, is a hero rather than a vigilante killer. These are Trump’s disciples, not his supporters. They will vote for Trump no matter what. Nothing can change that.
The Vote Red Until I’m Dead folks are Republican partisans. They have and always will identify as Republicans, so they might be temporarily tempted by Vivek Ramaswamy’s slimy politics, the opportunistic pandering of Nikki Haley, or the creepy forced Chucky doll smile and ironing board charisma of Ron DeSantis. They are willing to lightly criticize Trump’s behavior, but will enthusiastically praise his policies. They say things like “He’s not perfect and I wish he’d shut up sometimes.” But, ultimately, when then general election comes, they’ll never vote for a Democrat. “He wasn’t my first choice,” they’ll say. But he will be their choice.
The Anti-Bidens are different. They are the people who claim—whether genuinely or not—that they are only voting Trump because Biden is too old, or because they blame Biden for culture wars problems or their own economic circumstances. Some of them are beyond convincing, but others are actually weighing up comparative options and deciding who earns their ballot. Some are persuadable.
Finally, the Fence Sitters are swing voters. There are fewer of those in US politics than there used to be, but millions of people still fall into this category. They’re often the least politically engaged—and therefore are the least aware of Trump’s vicious and vile rhetoric.
These groups are important because the election will be won—or lost—depending on how well Biden and the anti-Trump coalitions can peel away voters from the last two groups (the Anti-Bidens and the Fence Sitters). This is why amplifying Trump’s insane rhetoric is important: it’s the kind of thing that can actually turn off the several millions persuadable voters who might cast deciding votes in 2024.
This four-part breakdown also helps us understand why the Don’t Amplify Him or the Banality of Crazy approaches haven’t worked. Much of what Trump says and does is objectionable to the vast majority of Americans who are decent, compassionate people. But right now, it’s the MAGA Mob and the Vote Red Until I’m Dead folks who are getting a constant saline drip of Trumpism into their veins. It’s not changing their minds; it’s just solidifying their devotion.
Meanwhile, the persuadable voters are being given the chance to forget the horrible stuff Trump did that they once knew about, all while reading blaring headlines about how Biden is old. (Biden is three years older than Trump — but, and I can’t believe I need to say this, elevated age is not remotely the same as being an authoritarian fraudster, found liable for rape, who stole the government’s nuclear secrets and sought to overturn an election to stay in power by inciting a violent attack on the US Capitol).
Keep this in mind: Trump’s approval rating plummeted after his comments about Charlottesville in 2018. Why? Because everyone knew about it. People who supported Trump grew a bit more sheepish about that support, because it became obvious that they were backing a racist. Nobody could pretend otherwise. Everyone knew. And that mattered.
But now, many pretend to have forgotten Trump’s past transgressions as old news—while others are oblivious to the drumbeat of dangerous rhetoric that is energizing the MAGA movement daily in increasingly violent ways.
The press has an obligation to convey magnitude, not just novelty. Newspapers and TV channels have limited time and space to discuss political events. In a political world in which an authoritarian contender for the presidency is floating the idea of shoplifting executions and killing generals, maybe, just maybe it’s not worth the space or time to discuss a brief stumble or a dog bite?
I concluded my latest Atlantic piece with this paragraph, and it sums up my feelings on the 2024 election—on what should be the lodestone for all American political news in the Trump/post-Trump era.
I hope others in the press listen:
Bombarded by a constant stream of deranged authoritarian extremism from a man who might soon return to the presidency, we’ve lost all sense of scale and perspective. But neither the American press nor the public can afford to be lulled. The man who, as president, incited a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in order to overturn an election is again openly fomenting political violence while explicitly endorsing authoritarian strategies should he return to power. That is the story of the 2024 election. Everything else is just window dressing.
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