Many newsrooms, in their attempt to cover the movement against democracy across the country, have hired more reporters to cover threats to democracy. That’s an important investment, but many outlets are failing to meet the challenge. That’s because they are treating the threats as a free-floating danger as opposed to the operating procedure of one party.
The nonpartisan group Protect Democracy recently published a guide for media that provides a helpful guide to identifying authoritarians’ playbook. It lists seven tactics:
1) They attempt to politicize independent institutions.2) They spread disinformation.3) They aggrandize executive power at the expense of checks and balances.4) They quash criticism and dissent.5) They specifically target vulnerable or marginalized communities.6) They work to corrupt elections.7) They stoke violence.
It shouldn’t take long to recognize that Donald Trump engaged in virtually all of these. He certainly politicized institutions. (As Protect Democracy reports, “Trump especially embraced emergency powers, pardons, and acting appointments while ignoring congressional subpoenas and spending appropriations, rejecting legislative oversight, and claiming immunity from judicial accountability.”) He never stopped disseminating lies, culminating in his false claims of election fraud. And from his remark that there were “very fine people” in the Charlottesville riot to his instructions for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Trump used or encouraged violence, a violation of the fundamental principles of democracy.
Equally apparent is that the GOP continues to support this conduct. The party continues to politicize election administration, perpetuates the “big lie” of a stolen election and flirts with violence — sometimes not so subtly. Even if not all elected Republicans engage in such conduct, the GOP protects its members who do (e.g., refusing to impeach Trump, refusing to create an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection, refusing to punish members who use violent rhetoric).
GOP apologists would likely interject here to bring up the remark from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 2020 that Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh would “pay the price” for overturning abortion rights. But the notion that one overheated statement is equivalent to sending a mob to attack the Capitol (or systematically whitewashing the assault) insults the intelligence of Americans.
When it comes to quashing dissent, the rest of the GOP has picked up where Trump left off. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s effort to strip Disney of its state tax benefits for opposing his “don’t say gay” bill is just one example. And the tidal wave of book-banning and laws targeting critical race theory comes from the right.
And here is where the major shortcoming of much of the mainstream media becomes clear: Outlets too often fail to identify that these threats overwhelmingly if not exclusively come from Trump and the GOP. State Democrats are not suppressing access to voting. President Biden is not instructing his attorney general to punish enemies. While Biden has made use of executive orders, he has not bypassed congressional appropriators nor has he moved, for example, to unilaterally ban certain weapons. The dissemination of blatantly false information on covid-19 came from Republican officials, not Democrats.
The mainstream media often bends over backward to avoid pointing the finger at the GOP as the source of antidemocratic activity. Mainstream outlets describe GOP efforts to limit voting as “strict voting laws." They fail to challenge the GOP’s attempt to create equivalence between overwhelmingly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and the grab-bag of violent right-wing actors embraced by Republicans. And when it comes to disinformation, they still so often frame it as “Republicans claim X, Democrats claim Y” when the Republicans’ claims are demonstrably and intentionally false.
Protect Democracy spends much of its report determining the seriousness attacks on democracy and devising responses, but such recommendations are lost on the media when outlets cannot bring themselves to explain that one party alone systematically undermines democracy.
Media outlets might pat themselves on the back for more attention to “democracy coverage,” but too many fail in the most fundamental respect: explaining that only one party consistently and systematically threatens our democracy. Until they do that and stop treating Republicans as “normal politicians,” the threat to democracy will not abate.