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Americans have become accustomed to so much in public life that they would have once found shocking. But many of these events are not only shameful; they are a warning, a kind of static energy filling the air just before a lightning strike. America is in a state of emergency, yet few of its citizens seem to realize it.
For example, a single senator, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, has been holding up hundreds of military promotions for months, endangering the national security of the United States. The acting chief of naval operations says it will take years for the Navy to recover from the damage. (Welcome news, no doubt, in Beijing.) Few people outside of America’s senior military leadership seem particularly concerned.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is going to open an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Why? Well, why not? Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised the extremists in his party that if they made him speaker, he would do what he was told. And so he has; the People’s House is now effectively being run by members such as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, fringe figures who in better times might never have been elected, and in a sensible House would have been relegated to the backbenches so far away from the rostrum that their seats would be in a different time zone. (And let us not even speak of Lauren Boebert.)
Elsewhere, the governor of Florida and his vaccine-skeptic surgeon general are telling people under 65 not to get boosted against COVID. He apparently thinks that anti-science extremism will help him wrest the Republican presidential nomination away from Donald Trump, and so he is resorting to a deeply cynical ploy that could cost lives.
And then there is Trump himself, the wellspring of all this chaos. In a country that understood the fragility of its own freedoms, we would see him for what he is: the leader of a dangerous cult who has admitted to his attempts to subvert American democracy.
Last week, Special Counsel Jack Smith filed a request for a gag order on Trump to stop him from making more public attacks on prosecutors, witnesses, and potential jurors. As they say on social media, let that sink in:
A federal prosecutor has asked a judge to stop the former president of the United States from threatening lawyers and witnesses in his case, and intimidating potential jurors.
As I wrote recently, this is not a normal election. (We haven’t had one of those in almost a decade now.) The GOP is not a normal political organization; the party withdrew into itself years ago and has now emerged from its rotting chrysalis as a nihilistic, seditionist movement in thrall to Trump. And Trump is not a normal candidate in any way: He regularly expresses his intention to continue his attacks on the American system and has made so many threats in so many different directions that we’ve lost track of them. Yet millions of Americans simply accept such behavior as Trump being Trump, much as they did in 2016.
Trump has shown his willingness to endanger anyone who gets in his way—as Smith’s recent motion shows—and so we might at least expect the media to report on Trump not merely as a candidate but as if they were following the developments around a dangerous conspiracy or the ongoing trial of the leader of a major crime syndicate.
Instead, we have Kristen Welker inaugurating the reboot of Meet the Press by leaning forward with focused sincerity and asking Trump, “Tell me—Mr. President, tell me what you see when you look at your mug shot?”
That wasn’t even the worst of it. Like Kaitlan Collins in her disastrous town hall with Trump on CNN this past spring, Welker lost control of the interview, because she, too, insisted on treating Trump like an ordinary political candidate instead of the seditious menace he’s become.
Many of my colleagues in the media have already dissected Welker’s failure, and I won’t pile on, because I agree with my friend Jonathan Last at The Bulwark, who wrote this morning, “I’m being hard on Kristen Welker, but this isn’t really about Kristen Welker. It’s about the mainstream broadcast media. All of them. In 2016 broadcast media was totally inadequate to the job of covering an aspiring authoritarian … Today—even after witnessing an insurrection—they still don’t seem to understand the situation and their complicity in it.”
Democrats and their liberal allies claim to be in full mobilization mode to stop Trump and defang his threat to the constitutional order. But are they? How much more hand-wringing will they do over Biden’s age, over whether he’s doing enough for climate change or to forgive student loans? Do we really need Biden to visit the UAW picket lines (as some have suggested)? How many more times will Trump’s opponents in the pro-democracy coalition internalize the right’s criticisms—about inflation, about spending, about gasoline—and respond to them as if Republicans care one whit about policy?
Yes, gas is expensive. So is food. These are real issues, and people deserve to hear how their government will assist them. The solution to these problems, however, is not to normalize an authoritarian and thus pretend that one party, dysfunctional as it can be, is the same as a reactionary, anti-constitutional, and sometimes violent movement.
We don’t have to live in panic. Americans need not walk around all day with their hair on fire, talking about nothing else but the gathering dangers. In times of crisis, whether World War II or 9/11, we married and divorced, we carped about prices, we partied, we took vacations. (Heck, I’m off to Las Vegas myself shortly.) We did all the things normal people do in the course of a normal life.
But we don’t have to live this way, either, with voters and institutions—and especially the media—pretending that all is well while charlatans, aspiring theocrats, and would-be authoritarians set fire to American democracy.