Bill Maher did a little end-zone dance last Friday night — and he probably deserved it. The host of HBO’s Real Time played a montage of clips from the past three years in which he warned repeatedly — and asked virtually every political guest who came on the show— about the possibility that Donald Trump would not leave office, even if defeated in the 2020 election. Back then he was a paranoid voice in the wilderness. Now he looks like a seer.
Through the worst outrages of the Trump presidency, I have gravitated (sometimes against my will) to the friendly confines of MSNBC and CNN for reassurance. The two cable-news channels are nakedly partisan, to be sure, but also a comforting reminder that cooler heads, rational voices and fact-based journalism are still fighting the good fight on TV. I tend to shy away from the outright cheerleaders, like MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, or the lecturers, like CNN’s Don Lemon, in favor of the more journalistic approach of people like Chris Hayes and (especially) Rachel Maddow — surely one of the most effective communicators in the history of TV news. even when her elaborate buildups to a big news break become so long-winded that I want to throw a shoe at the TV set.
But Trump’s refusal to affirm that he would accept the results of the November election has sent the cable pundits into five-alarm-fire mode. And it has highlighted an issue the news media have faced ever since Trump became a candidate. The question is whether, by giving serious, saturation coverage to Trump’s every rant, threat or unhinged tweet, the media are doing their journalistic duty, or simply abetting the President’s cynical disinformation campaign.
Reassurance is rapidly being replaced by high anxiety. I turned on Maddow’s show last week just in time for her interview with Rep. Adam Schiff, discussing Trump’s refusal that afternoon to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power after the election. “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful —” he said, before catching himself. “There won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.” This, to Maddow, was proof that Trump is threatening to destroy ballots, discount the election results, and refuse to leave office.
But isn’t there a less alarmist interpretation? I heard it simply as another example of Trump’s fuzzily worded, borderline incoherent bluster. His threat to “get rid of the ballots” was, almost surely, a reference to mail-in ballots — which he has of course been railing against for weeks. If we don’t count them, he was saying, there’s no need to talk about a transfer of power— because he will win.
All this, of course, is a craven attempt by an anti-democratic President to game the election and muddle the results. But should the media be dignifying such comments with serious analysis? Or, rather, simply dismissing them as the ravings of desperate politician who will say anything to dominate the conversation, fire up his base, and throw the media into a tizzy?
I’m for tamping down the tizzy. For one thing, Trump has a long track record of making threats, taunts and edicts that he has no intention of carrying out (or that turn out to be legally impossible to carry out). For another, treating every shoot-from-the-hip Trump outburst as serious news — a subject for sober analysis from lawyers, political strategists, presidential scholars — only helps to legitimize them, to give them more oxygen. Yes, in normal times whatever the President says is news. But this is no normal President, and these are not normal times.
I may be too optimistic, but my guess is that much of Trump’s bluster over the “scam” election will dissolve once (God willing) he suffers a definitive electoral defeat, one that can only be overturned by real evidence, presented in real courtrooms, presided over by real judges (even Trump-appointed judges). I may be wrong. But it’s the job of Democratic strategists and lawyers to prepare for that possibility — not journalists, who need to distinguish between legitimate news and the ravings of an unscrupulous narcissist doing everything he can to avoid the one thing he fears most: public rejection.