Donald Trump and Chris Wallace: A spectacle meant to normalize the man pushing to end democracy
July 22, 2020
The boundary-breaking Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once observed: “When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.”
Donald Trump, the fire devil and chaos agent, is that trouble and the suffering which comes with it. He is not outside the door; he is firmly inside the White House — and has no plans to leave even if evicted by the voters on Election Day.
Last Sunday, Donald Trump, America’s most powerful Fox News grandpa, was interviewed on that network by Chris Wallace. The malignant reality of the Fox Universe is supposed to be a “safe space” for Donald Trump and other members of his inner circle. For an hour or so on Sunday, that would not be the case.
During his conversation with Wallace, Trump could not answer basic questions about the coronavirus pandemic and his failures of leadership and outright malevolent negligence. He appeared not to care about the 140,000-plus Americans who have died during the pandemic. He struck a pathetic note, telling Wallace that there was nothing good about his time as president, saying, “I think I was very unfairly treated. From before I even won I was under investigation by a bunch of thieves, crooks. It was an illegal investigation.”
He defended the Confederate flag, which symbolizes white supremacy and the systematic subjugation of Black people. He spun ludicrous lies about “the left” wanting to unfairly and irrationally “cancel” Columbus Day. He blathered incoherently about the New York Times’ award-winning 1619 Project, which explores the origins of American democracy and its irrevocable connections to white-on-Black chattel slavery.
Trump bragged about passing a basic test of mental competence given to screen people for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The test itself is intentionally easy for those who are not so afflicted. Trump found the test difficult and was proud to have passed it.
There was not much news value to the interview, beyond the fact that it happened.
As he has done ever since he became president, Trump continued to make ominous threats about not stepping down from office if he loses the 2020 election. He continued to lie about the coronavirus pandemic. He proclaimed his greatness. He continued with his casual racism and deeply ingrained white supremacy.
On a certain level, Trump’s performance was very sad. If he were capable of such an emotion, he would have been embarrassed for himself.
In thinking about Trump’s interview with Wallace, we cannot forget that Fox News is Trump and the Republican Party’s equivalent to Pravda, the Communist Party’s official newspaper in the Soviet Union. There is little if any truth to be found there.
Fox News formerly claimed to be “fair and balanced,” but perhaps now feels that claim is too clearly false. As media scholars and other researchers have shown, Fox News is a right-wing disinformation machine that willfully and consistently lies to its audience. The network is so acutely damaging to America’s public discourse that people who do not watch any news programs at all actually know more about empirical reality and current events than people who consistently watch Fox News.
Fox News advertised Wallace’s interview with Trump as “no holds barred.” Either by express or tacit agreement, that was not the case.
Wallace never asked Trump about the Russian bounties reportedly placed on the heads of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, or about the president’s apparent indifference. Trump was not asked about his personal pattern of corruption, which extends to his inner circle and his administration more generally. He was not asked about his administration’s continuing assaults on the rule of law and the Constitution, conducted with particular vigor by Attorney General Bill Barr, or about his use of a secret federal police force in Portland, Oregon, and other parts of the country.
Wallace did not ask Trump about his recent attempts to order an end to coronavirus testing, in an evident attempt to control information about the spread of the pandemic.
Wallace also did not ask Trump about his pardon of Roger Stone, an obvious mafia-style quid pro quo in which Stone was rewarded for lying about Trump in order to protect him from criminal charges related to the Russia election interference scandal and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Instead, Wallace allowed Trump to repeatedly claim that he was a victim of the “Russia hoax.” Wallace also praised, soothed and coddled Donald Trump throughout the interview.
We must understand that Chris Wallace is not an objective party interested in the truth about Donald Trump and what he represents. Wallace’s role is to be the “reasonable” voice of Fox News, a journalistic beard for the propaganda arm of the Republican Party and the American right-wing. Wallace’s “tough” interview is a way for Fox News to maintain some superficial credibility as a “legitimate” news outlet. Such stagecraft and optics management are common features of failing democracies and autocratic regimes.
In total, Wallace’s interview with Trump is best understood as a pseudo-event intended to make an illegitimate leader look legitimate. (“Look! The Great Leader does interviews and answers questions! He represents the will of the People!”)
Unfortunately, this interview is being celebrated in the mainstream press as a great and impossible feat, a type of gold standard for reporters and journalists going forward. It has been described as “Pulitzer Prize-worthy,” “the best interview of Donald Trump ever” and even “masterful.”
In reality, Wallace did little more than observe basic journalistic rules about pursuing the facts and asking follow-up questions. A competent high school journalist could have done the same.
In that sense, Wallace’s Sunday interview was the equivalent of a high jump competition where the bar had been laid flat on the ground. Its principal revelation was that Trump could not answer the most basic and simple questions. In essence, he simply tripped over the bar and fell flat on his face.
But Wallace’s interview with Trump matters — because the excessive praise it has received shows how low the most basic standards of mainstream journalism have sunk in the Age of Trump.
There are far too many voices in the mainstream media who, despite all the obvious evidence to the contrary, have furthered a narrative that Trump was not really a fascist and an authoritarian. In their words, he would ultimately become “presidential” and “rise to the occasion.” Nearly four years into his regime, many of those same voices cling to a hope that Trump is something other than what he repeatedly shows himself to be. In recent weeks, because of his escalating assaults on American freedom and democracy, some of these voices have finally been forced to admit that Trump is a would-be fascist dictator.
The sincerity of these analysis is undermined by their cowardice. Such reporters, journalists and other members of the commentariat are horribly late to the fight but now want to claim vanguard status — when they labored for years to normalize and enable Donald Trump.
I have previously called such people “hope peddlers” — professional “moderates” who actively avoid the truth about Trump and this era. The hope peddlers are still pushing the narrative that somehow the American people will rise and unite, Trumpism will be magically vanquished, and all will return to “normal.” The hope peddlers, for reasons both personal and professional, are desperate for a return to a status quo ante where they can sell their superficial horse-race journalism and participate in a 24/7 news cycle that routinely inflates relatively unimportant issues into massive controversies.
Faced with a profound existential crisis – and no small amount of personal risk, in a failing democracy where Trump and his right-wing allies have targeted reporters and journalists with violence – the hope peddlers have exposed themselves as mere stenographers of current events, incapable of speaking truth to power.
Denial is the unifying theme in the mainstream news media’s fundamental failure to serve as a bulwark of truth and accountability in defense of democracy during the Age of Trump.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the three basic dimensions of denial are a refusal to “acknowledge a difficult situation,” a reluctance “to face the facts of a problem” and an effort to “downplay possible consequences of the issue.”
With some admirable recent exceptions — the George Floyd protesters, anti-fascist activists, members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and other people of conscience who have resisted Trumpism and the forces behind it — the American people at large have also shown themselves to be plagued with denial.
There are slightly more than three months until Election Day. Donald Trump’s fascistic machinations are unrelenting and expanding. He has publicly stated on numerous occasions that he will not respect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election if he is defeated.
Trump is deploying his own private police force, across the United States to put “anarchists” and “radicals” — in other words, anyone who defies him — behind bars, or worse. Trump’s followers are willing to die and kill for him. Bill Barr, serving more as the president’s personal lawyer than the nation’s attorney general, is consulting with John Yoo, George W. Bush’s infamous “torture lawyer,” about how Trump can consolidate power like an emperor, bypass Congress and the Constitution, and then rule by decree.
Trump may try to use his private Gestapo to stop Black and brown people, and others who support the Democratic Party, from voting in November.
David Atkins of the Washington Monthly outlines this scenario, writing that Trump and his campaign team now understand that absent some scandal around Joe Biden, Trump’s “only path to victory lies not in persuading a majority of voters but in choosing his own electorate by suppressing the votes of the majority of Americans who despise him”:
Put all of this together, and it opens the possibility of a terrifying abuse of power. We could end up seeing armed private contractors hired by the RNC and affiliated conservative organizations to intimidate Democratic-leaning voters, bolstered by camouflage-wearing taxpayer-funded rifle-toting border patrol agents aggressively checking papers of every voter in line in the guise of “securing against voter fraud” on the president’s orders. This would be happening during the most tense presidential election in our lifetimes during a raging pandemic, often in lines in which voters must wait 8 to 10 hours to vote due to restricted polling places in minority communities — also a blatant suppression attempt enabled by the Supreme Court’s voiding of many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act. …
The likelihood that these actions would be met with immediate enraged protest would be very high. Election Day violence unheard of since the Civil Rights era could ensue, which would give Trump an excuse to instigate further crackdowns across the country as election day continues. Federal agents could foreseeably be sent in to attempt to stop the counting of mail-in ballots in the days following the election on presidential orders. No need for a Brooks Brothers Riot if you can just send in an armed federal paramilitary, instead.
Absent some form of preventive action by states, municipalities, the Democratic Party and left-affiliated organizations, there is very little to stop Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr and Acting DHS Secretary Wolf from attempting any or all of this.
Trump’s regime and its enforcers are preparing to push America’s democracy off a cliff and into the abyss.
It may be too late to save America from Trumpism because the state of denial lasted too long. These next few months are especially critical if the country’s democracy is to be saved and the hard work then done to heal and improve it for future generations so that another version of neo-fascism cannot emerge in the United States.
To win, good Americans must engage in collective action, corporeal politics, embodied solidarity, and what the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis described as “good trouble” to resist and defeat Trumpism. First and foremost, good Americans must vote against Donald Trump in such massive numbers that he cannot make even the most brittle claim that the election was somehow stolen or rigged against him. Such a defeat will reveal Trump as a full-on tyrant engaging in a coup, should he refuse to step down in January as the Constitution demands. The moment of reckoning is here. Will the American people rise to the occasion or once again retreat into the false comfort of denial?