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The Media Has an Amnesia Problem

Donald Trump is the ringmaster, and the liberal media are his unwitting clowns.

Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in August. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Back in July, I wrote a post about the amnesia of the Vox generation of journalism.

This was about the time when young journalists were claiming that no presidential candidate in modern American history had ever posed the kind of threat to American democracy that Donald Trump did. I went through the specific claims, and cited example after example of comparable threats. I concluded thus:

So many of them seem to lack the most basic gut impulse of any historically minded person: if you think something is unprecedented, it’s probably not. Check your amnesia, dude. . . .

I know this is nothing deep or fancy, but it does make me wonder if today’s generation of commentators, raised as so many are on the assumption that the biological sciences and social sciences — with neuroscience as the master mediator — are the source and model of all knowledge, are somehow at a deficit.

By amnesia, I was thinking of these journalists’ failure to remember events from the Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan campaigns.

Little did I expect that only three months later they’d be forgetting events from . . . the Trump campaign.

At Sunday’s debate, Trump and Clinton had the following exchange:

TRUMP: And I tell you what, I didn’t think I would say this, but I’m going to and I hate to say it. But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we’re gonna have a special prosecutor.

CLINTON: Everything he just said is absolutely false, but I’m not surprised. . . . Last time at the first debate, we had millions of people fact checking so I expect we will have millions more fact checking because, you know, it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Because you would be in jail.

Ezra Klein immediately responded: “This is one of the most shocking moments in my history of covering American politics. I don’t know how to convey just how serious and dangerous it was.”

It was an odd response.

Hadn’t Klein, like the rest of us, just witnessed the shit show that was the Republican National Convention this past July? Where speaker after speaker called, not from the crowd but from the podium, for Hillary Clinton to be put in jail? Where Chris Christie — the governor of New Jersey and, for a time, a candidate for the Republican nomination — led a call-and-response of “guilty” or “not guilty” to which the crowd replied “Lock her up”?

Hadn’t Klein read his own website?

It’s pretty disturbing to hear a large crowd at a major party convention repeatedly call for the jailing of the leader of the other major party. . . .

To me, all this seemed like a new crossing of a line and an ugly degradation of a norm in American politics. . . .

Now, I can’t really believe I have to say this, but here goes: In a democratic society, it’s really disturbing for a political party’s leadership to basically endorse the idea that its main political rival should be jailed.

(I guess if the jailing is of a leader of a less major party, it’s okay.)

Under other circumstances, one might make allowances for the difference between such calls emanating from the base and such statements being uttered by the party’s nominee. But this, as liberal journalists have been telling us for months, is Donald Trump, the man who turned ego into id, who made red meat into elite material, who looked at the racist garbage of the ultra-right and saw the poetry of his platform. One would think, to hear these journalists talk, that the window of surprise had been closed some time ago.

As it turns out, Klein wasn’t the only one at Vox shocked by Trump’s comments Sunday night; Zack Beauchamp was, too: “This is so far beyond normal that it’s hard to even know where to start.”

Yet start he did —

In democracies, we respect people’s rights to disagree with each other. When one candidate wins a presidential election, the loser returns to private life or another government position. In some cases, former rivals become close friends. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who defeated Bush in the 1992 election, travel together and have spent decades jointly raising money to aid the victims of natural disasters.

They don’t get sent to jail, because we believe that political disagreement should be legal.

— and this is where he ended up:

That’s what is done by tin-pot dictators spanning the globe from North Korea to Zimbabwe. That’s what happens in countries where peaceful transitions of power are the exception, not the rule.

Donald Trump just threatened to bring that to America.

Like Klein, with nary a mention of the RNC, as if this were all unheard of in the United States of 2016.

It’s hard to take seriously all this shock and awe, this sudden Sturm und Drang over the completely unexpected, when this is just a sample of what journalists and pundits were saying, not in 1916, not in 1980, but in July of 2016.

Chris Matthews: “It seems third world, by the way. Somebody pointed out earlier, when you start talking about locking up your opponent, that is banana republic.”

David Corn: “This is actually dangerous. delegates chanting, ‘Lock her up.'”

Ryan Lizza: “Not a healthy sign in a democracy when the case against your opponent is that she should be imprisoned.”

Washington Post: “The Trump campaign’s descent from standard red-meat partisanship to unprecedented accusations of criminality displays contempt for the rule of law and a startling disinterest in fact and reason.”

Nick Kristof:

Look, people always engage in hyperbole about people they disagree with, but this Republican convention has taken it further than I’ve ever seen . . . In democracies, it’s natural to denounce opponents. But it’s in tin-pot dictatorships that opponents are locked up. When you’ve covered autocracies in countries where politicians are actually locked up after losing power struggles, you really don’t aspire for that in your own country.

What’s doubly odd about all this shock over Trump’s comments is that it’s not as if we’ve been wanting, these past few days, for incidents that are truly shocking. For months, I’ve been beating the drum of the non-novelty of Donald Trump, but try as I might, even I can’t remember a presidential candidate caught on tape bragging about assaulting women and grabbing pussy.

The liberal media likes to oppose itself to Trump, but with breathless commentary like this, where everything’s always new under the sun, it’s hard not to conclude that in the circus that is this election, Trump is the ringmaster and the liberal media his unwitting clowns, the side show that stumbles up and down the aisles, ginning up the crowd.