The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s frightening rally in Ohio shows the media still doesn’t get it

Audience members put up their index fingers while President Trump speaks at a Save America Rally in Youngstown, Ohio, to support Republican candidates in the state on Sept. 17. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has gone full QAnon. As he spoke during a rally for Ohio Republican candidates on Saturday, a soundtrack associated with the conspiracy theory played. That elicited one-armed salutes — another QAnon symbol — from many attendees.

The display bore an uncanny resemblance to the infamous Nazi salute. The delusional incitement and zombie-like response should put to rest the notion that President Biden (or anyone) should be “reaching out” to these people. They are unreachable, and pretending otherwise misleads voters.

No Republican should ever escape an interview or news conference without being asked to condemn this monstrous event. The cynical GOP leaders who know that Trump is unfit for office and that many of his cult followers have become violent should not be treated as ordinary party hacks. They are enablers of a dangerous movement. Yet they continually evade persistent, aggressive questioning.

Compare this with the mainstream media’s response to Biden’s recent speech condemning the MAGA movement. Biden — though he generously (and inaccurately, in my book) distinguished the movement from the Republican Party writ large — highlighted the MAGA movement’s far-right extremism and its refusal to ascribe to the basic tenets of democracy (e.g., renunciation of violence, sanctity of elections). Yet many in the mainstream media turned up their noses. “Biden should have been more welcoming,” they said. “He’s too divisive!”

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And herein rests the fundamental failure of the mainstream political media. Far too many continue to disguise the political reality we face. They refuse to use appropriate descriptors to describe Republican conduct, such as “fascist” or “racist.” Instead, they mislabel radical authoritarians as “conservatives.”

If this were a foreign country, the media would accurately describe the MAGA movement as a far-right cult. Yet in the United States, too many reporters cannot help themselves in normalizing the movement.

“It seems to be very deep in the mainstream press’s DNA to strain for equality when none exists,” said Margaret Sullivan, media critic and author of the upcoming memoir, “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life.” She adds, “Maybe journalists just don’t have the language to truly get across how disturbing and abnormal some of this stuff is. If so, it’s high time to grapple with that.”

And it’s not just Trump who has displayed the GOP threat to democracy. Consider also Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s inhumane transportation of asylum seekers to liberal states or cities to make a political statement. News reports suggest these people may have been tricked or lied to about where they were going and what awaited them at their destination. If so, there may be criminal as well as civil implications. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and others have asked the Justice Department to investigate.

Regardless of the legalities, the tactic is straight from the Jim Crow handbook. Though the GOP applauded DeSantis’s disdain for human beings fleeing dictatorial repressions, his actions followed in the steps of White citizens’ councils from the 1960s that bused thousands of Black Southerners to Northern communities. Politico reports:

Throughout the South, Citizens’ Councils as far and wide as Macon, Ga., and Selma, Ala., Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., lied with impunity, assuring Black residents that jobs and housing awaited them in their new home states. This was never the case, particularly on Cape Cod, where the off-season unemployment rate normally hovered near 20 percent. One man whom the Citizens’ Council had explicitly promised a job and home on the Cape told reporters that he felt hoodwinked. “I’d like to get my hands on those two men who shot me full of baloney about coming up here,” he fumed.

DeSantis is the alternative to Trump, we are told. But alternative does not mean always better.

The two Republicans prioritize intentional cruelty and unabashed xenophobia. Whether it is ripping children from parents’ arms or denouncing Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers” and “rapists,” they and other Republicans vying for consideration in 2024 seem entirely comfortable with dehumanizing vulnerable people. It is abject racism, and the vast majority of their party either applaud them for it or remain mum.

Yet mainstream media hosts rarely manage to bring up the Jim Crow origins of DeSantis’s scheme when interviewing Republican lawmakers. They do not compel lawmakers to explain how using humans as props is legal or decent. Instead, the favored oh-so-polite conventions hold: a mildly probing question, followed by a filibuster answer and then a change of topic. Such performances are insufficient to illuminate the vileness of the party propounding these stunts.

As the GOP becomes more brazen, the media seems to shrink further from its responsibility as truth-tellers and democracy advocates. Our democracy hangs in the balance.

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