These divergent trajectories — one career rocketing to the Oval Office and the other blowing itself up on Twitter — neatly frame the Age of Trump. This is an era of paradoxes, one in which the United States is making enormous strides in confronting its ongoing demons of racism, bigotry and misogyny under a president who happens to be a racist, bigoted misogynist.
If Barr had wanted a latte Tuesday afternoon to quench her thirst after comparing a black woman to an ape, she wouldn’t have been able to get one at Starbucks. Every company-owned store in the United States was closed — for racial bias and sensitivity training.
But when Starbucks employees returned home and switched on the TV, they would have seen a president who continues to scapegoat racial and ethnic minorities with incendiary language.
This contradictory dynamic presents a dilemma for media outlets. It is impossible to give a platform to someone who is a full-throated, unapologetic supporter of the president without promoting someone who, at best, tolerates racism, bigotry and baseless conspiracy theories in the politicians he or she supports or, at worst, actively spreads those scourges.
Barr clearly fell into the latter category. Executives at ABC surely knew that Monday’s outburst wasn’t out of character. (Barr had previously questioned whether President George W. Bush orchestrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing was a “false flag” operation committed by the U.S. government). And yet, they still gave her one of the largest media platforms in the world. It wasn’t hard to predict that a long-overdue reckoning would eventually arrive, as it did Tuesday.
For die-hard supporters of President Trump, Barr will almost certainly become a symbol of their perceived martyrdom. Some will absurdly claim that she is the victim of censorship. And that will add fuel to the Trumpian fire with the burning belief that the media is “biased” because it doesn’t promote enough voices of those who embrace even the ugliest aspects of Trumpism.
This confronts the media with two choices. One would be to indulge the darker instincts of Trump and his followers by giving them the space to air openly racist views or debunked conspiracy theories. The other is to do what ABC did on Tuesday: Call “abhorrent, repugnant,” racist views exactly what they are. Most legitimate media outlets have rightly chosen to abide by that higher standard. (And so, too, have most of America’s leading corporations — a fact that Fox News rarely chooses to dwell upon.)
As a result, while Trump stands behind a podium with the seal of the United States on it, those who mimic him most faithfully receive little time on respectable media platforms.
Take Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump troll on Twitter who has a massive 363,000 followers. To give you a hint of what Mitchell is all about, he claimed this week that “the modern #DemocratParty is no less an enemy of America than #NaziGermany or #CommunistRussia was.” So perhaps it was to be expected that he would respond to the Barr debacle by tweeting a photo of Valerie Jarrett and an ape side-by-side and implying there was a resemblance. Responsible media outlets know that they shouldn’t touch such a toxic bigot or promote him in any way whatsoever.
Trump has retweeted Mitchell seven times.
And Wednesday, rather than condemn Barr’s bigotry, he defiantly tweeted that he, a 71-year-old white man, was the real victim of this saga because Barr’s network didn’t call to apologize to him for negative coverage of his presidency.
Sadly, those who run the country from the White House to the halls of Congress have exhibited far more tolerance for racist, bigoted views than those who cover the White House and Congress.
It is true that that not all Trump supporters are racists. But it is an uncomfortable fact that their continued support of him means that they do not consider his bigotry to be a deal-breaker. For too long ABC executives foolishly tried to walk that same fine line with Barr.
And yes, there are pro-Trump figures in mainstream media who are not racists. Some speak out against Trump when he’s openly bigoted; others defend their support by pointing to a growing economy, deregulation or his Supreme Court appointment. But we shouldn’t mince words: Such Machiavellian tolerance of Trumpian racism is intolerable and immoral.
To function properly, democracy requires media that is not only free and robust but also enjoys broad trust within society. In the hyper-polarized Age of Trump, that’s impossible. And so all of us are left with a choice: between pandering to racists or losing their trust and their votes. ABC made the right call on Tuesday. One can only hope that voters will do the same in November by issuing a crushing defeat to those political forces who continue to enable the president’s worst impulses.