Donald Trump's victory was so loathsome to many journalists that instead of acknowledging their cultural and partisan blindness lead to them misreport the election, they doubled down, growing two overlapping myths to delegitimize a presidency they never wanted to happen. Psychiatrists call this denial; political scientists may call it a kill shot to democracy.
The two myths are Trump did not really win the election, and that once in office Trump is so unfit to serve he must be removed as a national act of self-defense.
The myth Trump did not actually win exploded outward like the Big Bang from November 8, 2016. There were the Jill Stein recounts, coupled with claims of voter fraud, gerrymandering, and racist voter suppression leading to an "unfair" win. This all morphed into what stands as one of the most ignorant themes ever expressed in American politics, that after winning the popular vote Clinton was somehow entitled to the Oval Office, as if the Constitution itself conspired against Hillary. An online petition to declare Clinton president that in normal times would have been seen as a crank call was promoted into gaining the largest response in Change.org history. "We're in uncharted waters," proclaimed CNN; the network also featured an ex-CIA officer callingfor a new election, what in spook-speak is known as an overthrow.
Instead of dismissing such unconsitutional nonsense, the media featured elaborate justifications, headlining the term "Hamilton Electors" to tie quixotic efforts to one of the few Founding Fathers voters knew via song. Editorials called for the Electoral College vote to be postponed. Once-cogent pundits like Laurence Tribe and Robert Reich morphed themselves into cottage industries proclaiming the impeach-ability of various Tweets.
The efforts to somehow keep Trump from office continued right up to the swearing in ceremony, itself boycotted by Democrats who did not want to "normalize" the election.
It was at that point the second myth came to the fore: Trump was unfit to serve. The uber-disqualification is that Trump is literally a Russian agent ("Is Donald Trump Working for Russia?" asked New York magazine, in a headline that would have made reporters blush during the McCarthy era), directly under the control of the Kremlin via some sort of pornographic pee tape no one has seen.
Alongside are a handful of memes never before seen in American politics. Trump's hotels make his presidency illegal under the Emoluments Clause, a Constitutional snippet that generally escaped notice for 220 years (that Obama might get a $60 million book advance to write about things he did in office but only paid out, alongside six figure speaking engagements, after he left office, or that foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary was Secretary of State, are not discussed.) Trump's tax returns, available to IRS auditors for decades, were remade into a media strawman; only if the people of Twitter examine those old 1040s can democracy be saved. An addendum to the myth is that Trump is on borrowed time. The media fans the flames of Mueller, who will deliver the smoking gun that has so far eluded the CIA, NSA, FBI, DOJ, IRS, DIA, and NYT.
Journalists, who as a group once took pride in their objectivity, now openly proclaim their "not Trump" political allegiance. Standards of evidence, typically requiring multiple and/or on-the-record witnesses, are replaced by the egregious use of anonymous sources that are often little more than gossip from interns. The result is the mushroom-level growth of headlines with colons, such as Revealed:, Sources: or Reported: and passive constructions such as “CNN was told...” that get around the fact that the story is not really based on facts.
There are new normals. It is now perfectly acceptable to call out the president with schoolyard-taunts: Trump has small hands, he’s a Cheeto orange man-child, homophobic jokes about Putin and bromance that would be lame in a junior high school locker room are OK on the front pages. Writers like Charles Blow in the New York Times build whole columns out of lists ("ignorant... churlish... tacky") of personal insults. Reporters compete with one another to show how aghast they are. Newsweek is gleeful at the possibility Trump won't finish his term. CNN talks of deposing the president. Politico runs a fact-free piece claiming the KGB, seeing into the future, compromised Trump back in 1987.
But the most unprecedented element of myth is the stream of reporting that the President of the United States is so mentally ill that his continued presence in the White House is an American suicide pact. Never before have mainstream media so freely and casually declared the President to be medically, legally, insane, all based on little but fear.
The myth is buttressed by medically unethical remote diagnosis, such as that of Dr. John Gartner, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. "I don’t think people have any idea how close we are the point of no return," Gartner said. "The noose is tightening around their necks and unlike Richard Nixon, Trump and his cabal are not going to leave gracefully. Donald Trump is going to be really like Bonnie and Clyde; he’s going to shoot his way out."
Though the nation's nuclear command and control procedures have for better or worse been left relatively unchanged since the Truman administration, it is only now, under the guise that Trump is insane, that the media and some Members of Congress promote the idea change is needed. Outlets champion the possibility the military could refuse to launch missiles, advocating insubordination, essentially a coup, as the best hope our nation will survive.
The 25th Amendment, created after the Kennedy assassination to codify the line of succession should the president become incapacitated, has been crowd-sourced into a psychological failsafe mechanism whereby the Vice President will wake up one morning, realize the Washington Post has been right all along, and force Trump out of office, semi-constitutional coup of sorts.
The impression created by such a whole-of-media effort is clear: America is on the lip of chaos, and Trump must be eliminated. For the first time in our nation’s history powerful mainstream forces are overtly trying to change the results of an election. Shocked by Trump’s victory, many in the media wanted to stop him from entering the White House. Failing that, they delegitimize the president in the manufactured-from-thin-air belief that he is such a threat to democracy that it is necessary to destroy democracy in America to save it.
At some point Trump will leave office. CNN and others would be expected to return to their originally scheduled programming at that time. The problem is once you let the genie of trying to overturn an election loose, you won’t be able to stop it. It's foolish to think this process won’t be used again. The clumsiness of the Obama birth certificate conspiracy to delegitimize a president is nothing compared to the approach being tried with Trump. Watch events unfold around the Alabama Senate election, and the next politician’s sexual harassment case. People are getting more skillful at the game, a new political weapon has been unsheathed.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell
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