Ever since Donald Trump won the presidential election, media outlets have attempted to mollify readers with meaningless treacle. Buzzfeed, sounding like a personal trainer you accidentally followed on Instagram, tweeted out an #inspirational photo with the text “Happiness Can Be Found Even in the Darkest of Times If One Only Remembers to Turn on the Light.” LA Weekly wrote a piece arguing that Trump isn’t the worst thing America has seen. Mashable minimized the threat of Trump with a cutesy tweet, “All the Times Trump Hated on His New Bestie, Obama.” And, most egregiously, People magazine — the same magazine that claimed to stand by a writer who accused Trump of sexual assault — yesterday posted a link to “22 Photos of Ivanka Trump and Her Family That Are Way Too Cute.”
We’re two days into this unfathomable future and it looks like we’re already losing touch with the reality of what Trump stands for: a racist, sexist, xenophobic America that’s a threat to the safety of minorities, the freedom of the press, the vitality of our foreign alliances and the civil liberties we hold dear. There’s an understandable impulse to gussy up this reality, give it a positive spin, slap some lipstick on the pig.
That would be a mistake. We spent the entire election in bifurcated media vacuums, being fed news that made us feel good. We can’t afford to do this any longer. It was a failure of imagination to underestimate the ascendence of Trump, as everyone is now saying, and it would be a failure of imagination to not anticipate Trump’s threats to all the progress we’ve made over the past eight years.
Like any autocrat, Trump should not be treated like a “normal” president-elect by the media. He should be looked at honestly and critically: as a hypocritical, bloviating narcissist who has threatened to lock up his opponent and advocated using war crimes. Highlighting Trump’s humanity distracts us from the effects of his inhumanity — the millions of immigrants who now fear deportation because of his campaign’s rhetoric and the Muslim-Americans now legitimately afraid to wear hijabs.
And yet, if there’s one thing the media loves (besides memes), it’s assuming the best of Trump when he deserves far less. When Trump didn’t yell at minorities on Twitter, he was praised for his restraint. When he called Clinton a “nasty woman” during the debates, pundits on CNN said he had stayed on message. Now that he’s a few months from being given the nuclear codes, we must stop giving Trump the benefit of any iota of doubt. Journalists need to start covering him as relentlessly as they did once they found out that he bragged about sexually assaulting women.
Denial can be alluring. In the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-semitism was simply posturing. Other papers downplayed Hitler’s appetite for violence: An editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on the date of Hitler’s appointment claimed that “there have been indications of moderation” on Hitler’s part. The editors of the Cleveland Press, on Jan. 31, asserted that the “appointment of Hitler as German chancellor may not be such a threat to world peace as it appears at first blush.”
It’s essential to retain your capacity for shock, as Masha Gessen writes in the New York Review of Books. “This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting,” she writes. “It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself.”
Remaining objective also requires dismissing small, playful moments that seem to mean more than they actually do. When When Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s weave, it was a cringeworthy moment that arguably humanized the candidate. We should not be lulled again.
Now that Trump is set to become commander-in-chief, the only respectable response is resistance. News outlets that aren’t explicitly conservative — or total fluff — have an obligation to report on Trump’s threatening rhetoric and the institutions he’s attacked. (If they need some light material, they can make a slideshow about all the people who are burning their New Balance shoes because the company said they support the president-elect.)
Yes, hope can be seductive, even when it’s just a photo op. Even Oprah, who once ran a “lifeclass” with Dr. Maya Angelou entitled, “When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them,” is not immune to hope’s call. Yesterday, she tweeted: “Everybody take a deep breath! #HopeLives” alongside a photo of Trump meeting with President Obama.
I’m sorry, Oprah, but no: It’s perfectly okay to not have hope about a candidate who told crowds at his rally that he intends to lock up his opponent. It is vital that we remain vigilant to Trump’s threats from here on out. Have a spine, media — yes, even you, People magazine.