Resolute Square

We Need to Persuade the Media to Help Preserve Democracy

Robert McElvaine warns of the risk of a fascist dictatorship replacing American democracy and urges responsible media coverage to save our democracy.
Published:December 7, 2023
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By Robert S. McElvaine

“At last.” Etta James’ marvelous voice has been playing in my mind over the past few weeks as one after another major publication has finally begun to sound the alarm that we are in serious danger of the American Experiment in democracy being replaced by a fascist dictatorship.

The headlines of the recent wake-up calls should be gripping to everyone. They include “Donald Trump poses the biggest danger to the world in 2024” in The Economist and “Suppose they threw a Cage Match between fascism and democracy and nobody cared?” in Slate, both on November 16, “Trump’s Dire Words Raise New Fears About His Authoritarian Bent” in the New York Times on November 21, Molly Jong-Fast’s “Let’s Stop Treating Polls as Actual News Events” in Vanity Fair on November 27, Robert Kagan’s “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending” in the Washington Post on November 30, “Trump’s Defense to Charge That He’s Anti-Democratic? Accuse Biden of It” in the New York Times on December 2, twenty-four essays on “If Trump Wins” in the January-February issue of The Atlantic, beginning on December 4, and “Why a Second Trump Presidency May Be More Radical Than His First” (print headline: “Second Term Could Unleash Darker Trump”) in the New York Times on November 5.

In her book. Oath and Honor, published on December 4, Liz Cheney made clear that we face “a five-alarm warning” and that if Trump is put back in the White House, he will dismantle the American Republic.”

We remain, though, a long way from the “At Last” line, “The skies above are blue,” and it is imperative for all defenders of democracy to come together immediately to devise and begin to implement the strategies needed to save the Republic. An essential part of that effort is to get media organizations fully to understand their responsibility in this crisis.

Even some of the newly forthright warnings are still using language that softens the reality. The most recent Times piece, for example, refers to Trump’s “autocratic tendencies” and says that “parts of Mr. Trump’s agenda” are “aberrational.”

I suggest that a wide array of groups and individuals committed to saving democracy come together to draw up a code of responsible coverage of the 2024 election and press all media organizations to agree to it. They all must distinguish patriotism from politics.
Think about this:

Hamas says it will do its evil—and worse—again.

Trump says he will do his evil—and worse—again.
 
As a start, here are a few areas that, in my view, stand out as most important for a responsible media approach:

Stop using harmless-sounding terms to describe those we know are intent on replacing democracy with authoritarianism. Above all, for God’s sake and America’s sake, stop calling people who want to end the American Republic and replace it with an authoritarian regime “conservatives.”

Almost everyone continues to use this totally misleading term, providing a mask for what the extremists now in control of a “Republican” Party that no longer believes in a Republic intend to do. This applies even to some of those raising the alarm.

People who say they want to “terminate the Constitution” are not conservatives.

People who say will end the rule of law are not conservatives.

People who try to stop the peaceful transfer of power are not conservatives.

People who say they will arrest their political opponents, shut down media that don’t support them, support an insurrection, threaten to execute opponents, and so on and on are not conservatives.

During the House Republicans’ struggle to agree on a new Speaker, I heard someone on MSNBC say, “Jim Jordan is a conservative flame-thrower.”

Coupling conservative and flame thrower is absurd.

Calling them “ultra-conservatives” or “super-conservatives” doesn’t do it. Liz Cheney is an ultra-conservative. No one who supports MAGA is a conservative with any adjective preceding it.

Journalists should repeat this rule over and over:

Never call anyone a “conservative” unless their beliefs and actions fit the word.

Those who cannot bring themselves to use the accurate word fascist should at least substitute such terms as “far right,” rightwing extremist,” “authoritarian,” etc.

Stop referring to totally unsupported nonsense as conspiracy “theories.” It makes them sound like something scientific. Call such people as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., conspiracy fabulists.

Note often that a basic difference between the parties is this:

Don’t report endlessly and breathlessly on what polls indicate people think, which is often inaccurate; instead, inform people of the facts.
Stop mindlessly reporting the “wrong direction” numbers as a referendum on Biden. With the prospects of the nation being taken over in 2025 by an authoritarian leader who says he will “terminate” the Constitution, arrest his opponents, and end freedom of the press … how could anyone, Biden’s extraordinary achievements notwithstanding, not think the country is on the wrong track?

Repeat on a daily basis what Trump and his supporters are saying they will do.

Make clear, also on a daily basis, that what Trump is saying he will do is almost identical with what Mussolini, Hitler, and other authoritarians did.

Remind citizens that Trump is putting the choice out there for all Americans to see: Do we want to become what so many of the “Greatest Generation” of Americans—the people Trump calls “suckers” and “losers”—gave their lives to save us from? Are we to lose at the ballot box the freedom our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents protected from Nazis, fascists, and communists?

The question must not be “What are Democrats doing for you?” It must be, “What are Republicans going to do to you?”

Will the media continue to the end dealing with an election on which the survival of the American Experiment—and likely democracy around the world—hinges by reporting, “What a race! As they head into the homestretch, it’s down to a photo finish—how exciting! Ahh, wow! Democracy lost. Uh, signing off ... Forever”?

As I wrote in a piece in the Los Angeles Times in November 2022, journalists have a responsibility to become partisans for democracy, truth, and the rule of law.

Above all, the media needs to remind Americans every day that Trump is not running for a second term; he’s running for a life term. Once back in office, he would never leave. A vote for Trump and what is now the Anti-Republic Party is a vote to take our nation through the doors, leaving the security areas at airports:

Doors leaving security area at LaGuardia Airport. Photo: Robert McElvaine (2022)



If Americans choose to exit democracy, there will be no re-entry for a long time.

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