The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Dear media: Stop giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt

Former president Donald Trump departs after speaking at a rally at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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The Republican Party has a reliable — albeit inadvertent — ally in the mainstream media. The latter remain all too anxious to make the authoritarian and often blatantly racist party seem “normal."

When Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia, the media gobbled up the GOP talking point that he had cracked the code for the post-Trump era. See how clever he was to keep his distance from former president Donald Trump? The coverage rarely scrutinized his positions, such as his potentially disastrous proposed tax cuts or his aversion to mask mandates, a critical part of Virginia’s school reopening.

The story line was set: Democrats blew it by closing schools; Youngkin was “smart” to pose as a normal Republican. As The New York Times cooed: “Many conservatives see his campaign as providing a template for how to delicately embrace Trumpism in blue states.”

Delicately? Youngkin was always serious about the MAGA camp’s culture wars, as he made abundantly clear on day one of his governorship.

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Shortly after his inauguration, Youngkin promptly banned critical race theory from Virginia curriculums, even though it isn’t taught in schools, thereby flaunting his willingness to cater to White grievance in a state infamous for its resistance to desegregation. He described what would be removed from school curriculum: “All of the principles of critical race theory, the fundamental building blocks of actually accusing one group of being oppressors and another of being oppressed, of actually burdening children today for sins of the past."

Listening to Youngkin, one might never know that slavery and Jim Crow are woven into the Commonwealth’s history and are relevant to ongoing racial disparities in wealth, education, health and homeownership. His airbrushed version of history is the standard MAGA effort to cater to White supremacists and wreak havoc in the schools. If only the media had taken him seriously during the campaign.

Opinion by Greg Sargent: Glenn Youngkin's awful first moves are already sparking a rebellion

And just as Democrats predicted, Youngkin swiftly imported Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war on mask requirements, preventing schools from issuing such mandates. Several school boards promptly decried his edict and said they’d go on protecting teachers and students. It seems Youngkin duped voters and the media who wanted to believe there was a normal alternative to MAGA Republicanism.

The media’s predilection for portraying Republicans as tactically brilliant is indicative of their preference for treating politics as a game. They denude their coverage of any qualitative judgment that would inform voters that the party’s “cleverness” is lying, plain and simple.

This refusal by the media to render judgment on the GOP’s cult leaders has gone on for more than six years. Despite replete evidence of Trump’s inability to distinguish truth from fiction, his self-image of grandiosity and his fixation on conspiracy theories, the mainstream media failed to characterize Trump’s conduct as abnormal.

Take his bizarre rally in Arizona on Saturday, where he rambled incoherently, insisting, for example, “The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating, just denigrating, White people to determine who lives and who dies. If you’re White, you don’t get the vaccine, or if you’re White, you don’t get therapeutics.” This is a loony lie.

He also called the violent insurrectionists arrested for storming the Capital “political prisoners.” About 200, of course, have pleaded guilty to crimes committed during the Jan. 6 attack. Even more bizarre, Trump bragged about the size of the violent mob during the Jan. 6 insurrection. “They talk about the people that walked down to the Capitol. They don’t talk about the size of that crowd,” he said. “I believe it was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken before, and they were there to protest the election.”

No reasonable person could hear this and not conclude he is unhinged. And he has been sounding like this for years. Yet the media largely covered the rally as run-of-the-mill politics. One New York Times headline: “Trump Rally Underscores G.O.P. Tension Over How to Win in 2022.” Meanwhile, Politico intoned: “Spread out in a sea of red MAGA hats and T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Trump won,’ the former president’s fans roared in support as he aired complaints about the election and made swipes at the Biden administration.”

Is that what he was doing? “Airing complaints”? Or was he making positively ludicrous claims, like the guy on the street corner hollering about the end of the world? Anodyne descriptions that slot Trump’s antics into “politics as usual” mislead news consumers. To make matters worse, interviewers avoid asking Republicans how they can pledge loyalty to someone so bonkers.

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Certainly, the media should avoid rendering a psychiatric evaluation for Trump. But they routinely refuse to convey the abnormality on display before them. This is “the emperor has no clothes” on steroids.

Unflinching, brutally honest coverage would describe Trump’s behavior accurately, including his syntax and preposterous lies. It would concede this conduct would be disqualifying for any business executive or even a small-town mayor. The media are compelled to level with voters: The two parties are not equivalent, in part because one treats its crackpot leader like a messiah. Unfortunately, there are no signs the media are ready for such candor.

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