I don’t know why people say Donald Trump is a formidable candidate. He’s not. He never was. In fact, he is easy to beat. He always was. It just hasn’t been done right. By anyone.
To rid ourselves of this toxic scourge and to protect democracy, Trump must be dealt with firmly, without compromise. The first step to ridding ourselves of the MAGA cult mentality must be the humiliation of a pathological liar on the campaign trail and its resultant crushing defeat in the presidential election.
Republican presidential hopefuls would be the ideal choice to exorcise the party’s Trumpian demons, but that will never happen because they “assumed the position” long ago. I don’t see Joe Biden being up to the task, nor is it his style.
That leaves it up to the media.
I know what you’re thinking.
The press literally hammered Trump with a barrage of coverage for every one of the awful things that came out of his mouth.
“A full spectrum of the press warned us about who he was,” wrote longtime political commentator Jack Shafer in a piece for Politico last October titled “Stop Blaming the Press for Trump’s Success.”
Yes, the press warned us, but they did it wrong.
Shafer, in his defense of the media coverage, used a curious adjective to describe it: “coruscating,” meaning bright, glistening, glittering. He meant media outlets were all over it: front-page stories, blaring headlines, the lead item in nightly newscasts, fact-checks, outrage, condemnation and excoriation.
But it was always after the fact. Every bit of coverage, no matter how intense, was done from a distance, out of earshot of Trump. No one did it to his face. On live TV. In real time. Nowhere.
That’s what journalists must do this time: a no-holds-barred, full-court press in Trump’s face every single time a reporter talks to him. Challenge him on every falsehood, every exaggeration, every spin, and do it vigorously, viciously, without mercy. Every reporter, every time, until he withers the way two-bit criminals do when they fold under police questioning.
And let’s not kid ourselves. Donald Trump is a two-bit criminal.
I’m sorry I said that. If there were a two-bit criminal here, I’d apologize.
Someone will argue that Kaitlan Collins had the opportunity to do all this while moderating that CNN town hall.
Not really. Her best effort wasn’t good enough because she followed a model of political campaign coverage that has always been inherently flawed and is now obsolete. Far too many lawmakers today are emboldened, unafraid to utter absolute bullshit because they know no one will call them on it.
The best a journalist has ever mustered while interviewing Trump has been, “Sorry, that’s not true,” or some other benign phraseology.
Sorry, that’s not good enough.
It’s like that scene in “Aliens,” when the Marines are heading toward the alien nest and the sergeant is ordered to collect everyone’s magazines because they can’t have any bullets firing since they’re so close to a fusion reactor.
And one of the Marines says, “What the hell are we supposed to use, man? Harsh language?”
Exactly. What’s often called “normal coverage” by political campaign journalists is no match for today’s cretinous lot. Playing nice and telling a lawmaker that something they said isn’t true isn’t going to work anymore. Everything journalists learned about how to cover a political campaign has to be reexamined. Harsh language won’t cut it. You must come fully armed.
Is it really taking years for journalists to figure this out?
I think journalists are a little gun-shy because it’s ingrained in them from day one not to be part of the story, to be objective and impartial. Those who criticized CNN’s town hall seemed to do so with that journalistic canon in mind: Don’t make the news, just report it. And whatever you do, don’t be a human being.
Taegan Goddard, the founder and publisher of Political Wire, wrote that “CNN Tried to Make News Not Cover It.”
“There’s a huge difference between covering Donald Trump and giving him a platform to spew his lies,” he tweeted.
No, I’m pretty sure more people talked about what Trump said rather than where he said it. Or more to the point, got away with what he said.
But if the problem is giving Trump a platform to spew his lies, the answer isn’t “don’t give him a platform.” The answer is to use the platform to attack Trump for the liar that he is. To his face. Defeat bad ideas with better ideas. Not less speech, but more speech.
Many would agree it is unwise to give a platform to a serial liar who tried to overturn an election by orchestrating a deadly coup, “especially,” as one person noted on Twitter, “a chronic liar with a cult following who’s itching for a civil war.”
But I’ll bet everyone would agree to give that liar a platform if he were made to pay the price for his lies. On live television.
Anderson Cooper’s defense of his network was as paltry as it was insulting.
“You have every right to be outraged today, and angry, and never watch this network again,” he said the next day. “But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”
Excuse me, Anderson, I notice your network did nothing to get Trump out of his little safe space silo, and, even worse, you stuffed the room almost entirely with Trump worshippers, which only encouraged him to keep on lying. Is that what you want? Is that the silo you’re talking about?
Through its stark counterexample, CNN unwittingly provided the following lesson on how to put Trump on TV: You want a platform? Fine. Just don’t expect a free pass. You will be challenged severely, brutally, for every lie you tell, for every exaggeration, falsehood, hyperbole, or anything else that comes out of your mouth. You will not be allowed to bully your way through another appearance, not on this network, and hopefully not anywhere else.
That should go for the whole sordid collection of blowhard lawmakers and political performance hacks, from Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham to Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. Don’t waste everyone’s time with one of those insipid panel discussions or some editorial screed telling us what we already know. Everyone already knows that Trump is a cad, Cruz a sanctimonious windbag, Graham a spineless embarrassment, and how intellectually destitute Greene and Boebert are. What voters want is for them to be held to account for it.
These people are employees. They’re supposed to work for us. They suck at it. They need to be publicly disgraced for their political beggary, without remorse. Every interview and every question should be treated like a job performance review.
With all due respect to the Society of Professional Journalists, that needs to be journalism’s new paradigm. Trump is a monumental hoax built out of an accumulation of lies and myths directed toward proving things that aren’t true. A near-flawless personification of malevolence. You thus cannot question him as if he were a normal presidential candidate. Otherwise, you’d be glossing over a tawdry string of unchecked arrogance, thuggery and egotism that has been allowed to operate above reproach and well beneath contempt.
Journalists must embark upon a new approach to their political reporting and leave behind a methodology that is arcane, outmatched and of little benefit to the American voter.
What might that new approach look like? Well, there is always the good leading question:
“Mr. Trump, as a person found liable for defamation and sexual abuse…”
Or, “Mr. Trump, as someone under investigation for trying to stage a coup...”
Would Trump object to such a question? What, he’s going to claim the jury sided with him, or that he’s not under investigation?
Borrowing from the recurring feature in those old Mad Magazines, here now, “Scenes We’d Like to See”:
Host: Good evening, sir, and thank you for being here.
Trump: Thank you.
Host: Why can’t you admit that you lost the 2020 election?
Trump: Actually, I won that election. Everybody knows it. In fact, I won by —
Host: Sorry, Mr. President, but that’s a lie. That’s what everybody knows. If you had won that election, you’d be in the White House right now. But you’re not, because you lost.
Trump: Can I finish?
Host: Not if you’re going to continue to tell that lie. Every Republican state official confirmed that you lost. You had a chance to prove it in court more than 60 times, and every time you came up with nothing. Zero. Empty. Some of those cases were even thrown out because the litigating party had no evidence. How can you go into court with a lawsuit with no evidence to support it?
Trump: Look, it has been overwhelmingly proven that I won. For starters, the dump of votes —
Host: Debunked. Complete nonsense. No, you can’t finish. You’re lying again. There is no proof that you won anything. But if you’re going to continue to tell lies then this interview is over. Good night.
Then, get up and leave the stage. Drop the mic and walk off. Trump would be left standing there with an entire audience, studio, at home, or both, staring at him. He’ll face a very subtle form of social pressure standing there, unsure of what to do. He’ll look even more foolish when he picks up a mic and tries to speak because engineers will have cut the sound, as well as sound to the entire telecast.
Fade to black. Go to commercials.
Another approach might be to turn the next town hall event into an absurd, campy mockery. The moment he says the election was rigged, dancers should suddenly appear and start strut-kicking across the stage, complete with cannon bursts of confetti and tumbling balloons. The dancers would twirl around an utterly bewildered Trump before disappearing, stage left, of course. And then it all vanishes. A custodian comes through with a broom to sweep away some of the debris, and the evening continues as if the entire routine never happened. That is until he lies again, and the whole zany sequence starts again. Repeat as necessary. A vaudevillian drinking game, as it were.
I’m sure you can imagine an even pithier exchange or some even more bizarro stagecraft, but it comes down to the same thing:
- Denounce his lies and humiliate him for lying.
- Be willing to cut his microphone.
- If it’s before an audience, don’t intentionally fill the entire venue with Trumpers. It’s supposed to be a town hall, not a clown hall.
- Be willing to let him have a hissy fit and storm out. Just because he’s a spoiled brat doesn’t mean you have to be his pacifier. Let him retreat to his failing social media platform like the snowflake that he is. Trump is defined by insecurities that impel him to denigrate others. Don’t be afraid to highlight that weakness.
For the CEO who is more interested in ad dollars than journalistic integrity and is worried that advertisers might be upset over Trump leaving the event midstream, fine. Sell the airtime the way you would for the Super Bowl. Early ads pay top dollar. By the fourth quarter, it’s bargain-basement time.
Besides, you can continue the telecast with the many Republicans who were instrumental in preventing Trump’s efforts to sabotage the election, or others unafraid to condemn him for continuing to peddle that lie.
You want a panel discussion? How about one consisting of judges from those five dozen-plus lawsuits trying to overturn the election and let them spell out with precise legal reasoning why none of Trump’s claims have any merit and why all those lawsuits proved utterly bereft of any credibility.
Imagine future interactions where, the minute Trump tells another of his patented lies, the entire press corps turns around and walks away, TV cameras in tow. Viewers would see it and figure, “Well, I guess he was lying again.”
The best part: The image of a liar withering under the intensity of a reporter undaunted, questioning him with prosecutorial zeal, or his abandonment by reporters unwilling to give any more attention to his lies. Such moments would be played and replayed, dominating and returning to the news cycle when he repeats those lies somewhere else, maybe at one of those bread-and-circuses rallies. The inevitable campaign ads would be the final, delicious comeuppance.
And if Trump refuses to appear on a network or interview with legitimate journalists — which likely would happen — that becomes its own story. Donald Trump: not only a liar but a coward. The Cowardly Liar. America’s Biggest Snowflake. Here’s a guy who says he’d be tough with China, with Putin, or anyone else, yet he’s terrified to face a reporter? And if he chooses to only go on one of those safe-space cable networks, record the event, and then dissect every moment of it. Stop the video, one lie at a time, and disprove it with irrefutable evidence, expert guests, and witnesses who executed their duties in the peaceful transfer of power. That’s a lie; here’s why. That’s a lie; here’s why. That’s a huge lie. Goodness, what a liar!
Yes, Trump sells, there’s no question. But his long-overdue “emperor has no clothes” humiliation would sell even more.
I understand. Journalists bound by the tenets of their profession would probably shudder at such an approach. Editors, executive producers and managing editors would never allow it. Journalists are taught not to make themselves part of the stories they cover and to rely on outside expert sources for information, even if they are experts on the subject themselves.
In case you haven’t noticed, you’re already part of the story. When Trump says you’re a nasty person, he’s made you part of the story. He made you part of the story when he said the media is the enemy. Instead of taking offense, why not give him an idea of what his enemy is truly capable of?
And please, you don’t have to be an expert to know the difference between the truth and a lie. We should add that Trump is hardly an expert on truth, but he’s quite the expert on lying.
Don’t let him get away with it. By letting him get away with it, by not pressing him at the moment he lies, you enable it. Journalists are the only ones who can stop it, as long as they do it right in front of him. Somebody just needs to have the fortitude to do it. Every reporter should have that fortitude.
Think of all those times we had to endure reporters dancing around the word “lie.” He falsely asserted. He misstated. He misled. Misrepresented. Claimed. Distorted. Evaded. Fabricated.
I just love that qualifying phrase, “without evidence.”
Bullshit. He lied. He is a liar. There is no other way to treat him anymore but with sustained, ceaseless outrage.
Journalists are very uneager to do that. They need to “uneager” that “uneagerness.”
I’m reminded of an exchange at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Houston in March 1974, when CBS White House correspondent Dan Rather, a Houston native, introduced himself (“Dan Rather, CBS News”) to begin a news conference. There were cheers and a few jeers. Noting the audience’s reaction, President Richard Nixon joked, “Are you running for something?” And Rather replied, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?”
Rather caught a lot of flak for that. Until then, reporters at press conferences were largely deferential to the president.
But if lawmakers aren’t deferential to the facts, why should reporters be deferential to lawmakers?
Oh, and please spare me that business about treating presidents with respect. Behave presidentially. Then you’ll have my respect.
Think of “60 Minutes,” the pioneering TV news magazine that brought an aggressive, investigative style of TV reporting into everyone’s living room and that made viewers cheer as correspondents went after the bad guys, and I mean went after ’em. Think of Mike Wallace in his prime. He didn’t just go after the bad guys, he eviscerated them with questions that were penetrating, uncompromising, even corrosive. He didn’t seem to care. He knew: They deserved it.
The joke in those days was, “The four most frightening words in the English language are ‘Mike Wallace is here.’”
Imagine his opening salvo in an interview with Trump. It might be like that meme out there: “Let me get this straight. You were fired? You refused to leave, called all your friends to come and vandalize the workplace, then you stole a ton [of] classified, sensitive shit on the way out of the office. ... And now [you’re] reapplying for the job again?”
Every reporter, every journalist with the opportunity to question Trump, should do so with relentless fury. Every reporter who bears witness to a question directed at Trump by a colleague, be it in a press pool, a gaggle or a news conference, should be ready to pounce upon Trump’s evasiveness, spin-doctoring, or lying: Mr. Trump, you are lying.
Say it. It’s not hard. Not when you’ve got a liar like that. He’s a liar. He needs to be told to his face. Repeatedly. Unapologetically. Caustically. Liar. You have every bit of verifiable proof to support that appellation.
Our Founding Fathers would approve. They saw a free press as the watchdog for citizens, to keep them informed on and involved in government affairs, and to ensure that truth and reason stood fast against falsehoods, propaganda and malfeasance.
The founders may not have liked it when the press was critical of them while they were in office, but they understood that a free press was essential to liberty (Thomas Jefferson), to the security of the state (John Adams), and that it never let despotic governments restrain it (James Madison).
Can you name anyone in recent history who has posed a bigger threat to democracy or been more despotic than Donald Trump?
In a 1785 letter to his nephew Peter Carr, Jefferson warned of the dangers of letting liars get away with lying.
“He who permits himself to tell a lie once finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”
Sound like anybody we know? (OK, except for the “truths” and the “good dispositions” part of it.)
What if someone worse were running for president? House Republicans have quite a few front-runners for that title. White supremacist David Duke ran for president as recently as 1992.
Should the press treat Trump with more deference than it does extremists like Duke or Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, who was recently convicted of seditious conspiracy for his involvement in the Jan. 6 attack? Or Nick Fuentes, the “outspoken antisemite and racist who is one of the country’s most prominent young white supremacists,” who has praised Hitler and the Unabomber and declared that “Jews run the news”?
I don’t need to remind you that this guy broke bread with Trump.
Shall we give him 90 minutes of airtime with nothing but neo-Nazis and the hood-sheet crowd in the audience?
Does Donald Trump deserve better treatment just because he’s running for president? No, he needs the severest treatment possible precisely because he’s running for president.
The frightening thing is, there are citizens in this country who would vote for people like Fuentes and Tarrio, so why not Trump? We have an entire swath of voters, intellectually anemic, hopelessly incurious, utterly submissive, and willingly obedient, ready to put their lives on the line for Donald Trump.
“Trump has this grip on a slice of the GOP that is unshakeable,” Gunner Ramer, political director for the Republican Accountability Project, told me. The super PAC works to defeat MAGA candidates and unseat those who supported the “big lie.”
“He has shifted Republicans not just to the right, but to Donald Trump,” Ramer added. “No matter what Trump has done, they see anything done to him as an attack on them, which only bolsters a rally-around-Trump effect.”
“It’s resentment politics,” Ramer said.
Resentment has that power. It’s what drove voters to the polls in 2022 after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It makes you wonder whether getting in Trump’s face whenever he lies would just be another notch in the resentment file.
But accountability, justice, reckoning, those also have great power. Trump may have a solid chunk of the GOP electorate that have quit buying Bud Light, but I’m convinced that every other voter, particularly swing voters and independents, would cheer and say, “It’s about time someone took it to that guy.”
And this is precisely the point. Any road to the ultimate repudiation of Trump conservatism and its destructive nature must begin with a resounding and even humiliating defeat of Trump in 2024. Or Ron DeSantis, his vulgar clone, should Trump’s campaign be routed by the myriad legal investigations he’s facing.
I’m doubtful Biden alone will be able to achieve that. This sobering task must fall to journalists.
It is no small task. Journalists must balance the responsibilities of their profession with the dignity of their humanity. But the stakes are higher now.
Yes, they can abide by their ethical principles such as truth, accuracy, objectivity, and impartiality — noble pursuits, to be sure. Or they can be guardians against the pernicious lies, inexcusable improprieties, and intolerable cruelty that have undermined a greater set of principles, those of our democracy.
I deeply appreciate the conventions of journalism, and I admit that what I’m proposing here is more a fantasy than a possibility, but the country can no longer afford for journalists to be passive players. If you became a journalist because you believe in the power of a free press, you love this country, and you want to make it even better to the extent that you can as a journalist, this is your chance. You just have to change your approach.
“If you want to stop Donald Trump from returning to power,” writes Tom Nichols in The Atlantic, “putting him on TV is the way to go. But doing so requires either that you hand him a microphone and let him immolate himself or that you sit him down with a reporter who will not let up on calling out his lies and fantasies until he melts down.”
At this point, the only verdict is Door No. 2, the meltdown. The approach to Trump is not to interview him; it’s to interrogate and to do so with unwavering tenacity. Do that, dear journalists, and you will provide a service that honors both your journalistic ethic and our nation’s ideals.
If you do not, if you treat Donald Trump as you did twice before in presidential years, you will not only have failed in your duty to hold the powerful accountable, but you will have enabled a noxious, strutting animal whose function in life is to serve himself, even if it means throwing the country into a graveyard. If we refuse to see this, and if the media does nothing to berate, shoot down, and vilify to his face who he is, who he always has been, and always will be, then we will become the gravediggers.