The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Timid media and GOP figures are again, dangerously, normalizing Trump

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)
6 min

We saw throughout Donald Trump’s two presidential campaigns and four years in the White House a symbiotic relationship between mainstream media outlets and Republicans, in which both made Trump out to be a far more normal politician than he was.

On the one hand, there was Republican denial (Didn’t see the crazy tweet! I’m sure he’s learned his lesson!). On the other, there was the media’s determination to avoid claims of bias and maintain a false balance — which often resulted in their obscuring how loony he sounded. The result: a never-ending Trumpian stream of threats (both policy-related and more personal), absurd conspiracy-mongering, and lies that were never regarded as disqualifying.

Apparently, neither the media nor supposedly sober Republicans have learned anything from the past. Trump gave a bonkers speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, musing about Russia blowing up NATO headquarters, claiming President Biden had taken the border wall and “put it in a hiding area,” and telling the crowd, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”

We do not get headlines acknowledging this is unhinged. Instead, we get from the New York Times: “Trump Says He Would Stay in 2024 Race if Indicted.” And a similar angle from CNN. ABC started its website report this way: “Former President Donald Trump continues to reign supreme over the conservative wing of the Republican Party.” From The Washington Post: “Trump takes victory lap at conservative conference.”

CBS intoned that Trump “aired grievances with his familiar foes: President Biden, the Department of Justice, and the litany of legal fights he is embroiled in.” Politico went with: “Trump ties a ribbon on the most MAGA CPAC yet.” Hmm.

From the coverage, you would never understand how incoherent he sounds, how far divorced his statements are from reality, and how entirely abnormal this all is. Talk about burying the lead.

The press and Republicans’ mutual distaste for candidly acknowledging Trump’s break with reality and the danger he poses to democracy was on full display on the Sunday shows. On “Meet the Press,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu lamely offered that he’d support whomever the Republicans nominate for president. Equally cringeworthy, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on “This Week” wouldn’t rule out supporting a nominee indicted on a felony charge that involved overthrowing the 2020 election results: “That’s a huge hypothetical right now on the indictment issue. … But right now my plan is to support who becomes the nominee.”

On “Fox News Sunday,” former secretary of state Mike Pompeo said it’s time to reject any candidate who would tell “whoppers” and spends endless time on Twitter — but dodged the question when host Shannon Bream said surely, he must be talking about Trump.

This spectacle is equal parts infuriating and pathetic. Here are Republicans, some of whom are considering runs for the presidency, who somehow expect to get through a campaign without mentioning the single most disqualifying thing about the leader in the race (other than his mental unfitness): He betrayed the country. Such timidity is itself disqualifying for someone seeking the presidency. If these candidates cannot stand up to an ex-president who is currently devoid of power, how can we expect to them to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic?

It’s not impossible to show some spine. Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson reacted to the CPAC speech on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “First of all, if you want to heal our land, unite our country together, you don’t do it by appealing to the angry mob. Whenever you’re looking at the leader of our country, you don’t want him to be engaged in a personal vendetta,” Hutchinson said. When Trump talks about vengeance, he added, “he’s talking about his personal vendettas, and that’s not healthy for America. It’s certainly not healthy for our party.”

See — how hard is that?

To top this, Hutchinson criticized the idea that any GOP candidate for president should have to agree to a “loyalty pledge” to support other GOP candidates as a condition for appearing at any debate — something Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has said she plans to require. The goal of such a pledge, Hutchinson asserted, was to avoid a situation in which a spurned GOP contender might run as a third-party candidate — “that would be the threat from Donald Trump,” he said. “If you’re going to have a pledge, have it say that ... the candidates who participate in the debate are not going to run as a third-party candidate, and that would solve that issue.” Hutchinson remains a lonely island of decency in a sea of cowardice.

Like most Republican politicians, a good deal of the mainstream media is equally reticent when it comes to defending our democracy. You had to go to an unabashed progressive outlet such as HuffPost to get an accurate, complete sense of what happened at CPAC. “Trump To His Followers: ‘I Am Your Retribution,’” its headline read, followed by: “The coup-attempting former president brought his usual grievances back to a diminished CPAC.”

Coverage can be so bland and innocuous as to mislead. The audience — that is, potential voters — might easily come away from such coverage believing that Trump acted like a normal candidate, not a figure plainly unfit to handle any public position. And interviews can be so inept as to allow Republicans to repeatedly avoid explaining how in the world they could support someone so unfit for office.

If you put cowering Republicans together with media unwilling to accurately describe what is going on in front of them, you wind up gaslighting voters, who come away with the impression that Trump’s carnival of crazy is acceptable. We know how this ends: If no one is willing to call out Trump for what he is, and the danger he poses to the United States, we risk returning him to the Oval Office.

Whereupon, expect the headlines: “How did this happen?”