Donald Trump was enthusiastically endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Donald Trump wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Donald Trump endorsed deporting tens of millions of immigrants from the country. Donald Trump bragged on tape about assaulting women. Donald Trump was accused of assault by a long list of women. Donald Trump picked a vice president who believes in conversion therapy for queer people and signed a bill into law mandating that aborted fetuses be given funeral services. Donald Trump has inspired a seemingly unending string of racist and sexist assaults from his supporters.
These things are as true now as they were before he won the election, and they’ll be true no matter how many days he’s in the White House.
And yet, it seems obvious that, at least where our political and media elite is concerned, many of these things will fall by the wayside. Donald Trump is going to be the president, and when you’re the president, you get treated differently.
You could feel it happening almost instantly after Trump won. CNN’s Dana Bash, in between saluting his victory, referred to his campaign as one that was full of “zigs and zags,” which is a nice euphemism.
The Huffington Post announced that it would be removing the editor’s note it had attached to every story about Trump which lambasted him as a racist and Islamophobe, among other things, so that the site could start Trump’s presidency with a “clean slate.” (HuffPost later said that it had always intended to remove the note after Election Day, and has drawn attention for some of its forthright coverage of Trump since his victory.)
Amazon chief and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos congratulated Trump on his win, and other techies started musing aloud about how they might work with him. Newseum, a museum dedicated to the press freedoms which Trump holds in such contempt, trumpeted its plans for a decadent inauguration party.
NBC decided an upcoming episode of Law & Order: SVU depicting a Trump-like character charged with rape should be postponed. The Daily Show warned protesters not to let their anger get too out of hand. Even Oprah said nice things.
On Sunday night, 60 Minutes featured a 40-minute sitdown with Trump and his family. Interviewer Lesley Stahl spent roughly as much time cheerfully asking about Trump’s Twitter habit and whether he’ll accept a salary as president as she did on the racial hatred he may have stirred up. She made no mention of the many assault allegations against him.
Perhaps most galling, People magazine, whose own reporter accused Trump of sexually assaulting her, and whose editor solemnly patted himself on the back for running the story, was suddenly filled with gauzy stories about Trump and his family.
And then People put Trump on its cover. After an outraged response, the magazine issued a statement saying that the cover “is not a celebration or an endorsement,” that Trump was a newsworthy person, and that it continued “to stand by Natasha Stoynoff, whose account of being attacked by Trump in 2005 is recounted in this week’s cover story.”
The defense might have felt a little less hollow if the cover hadn’t looked liked this.
There’s no reason to expect that any of this will change as Trump’s presidency continues. In fact, it’s probably going to get worse.
Trump’s surrogates—that endless, rotating band of pundits who seemingly came out of nowhere and backed him to the hilt for two years—will now be permanent fixtures on cable news, just another half of the “fair and balanced” sludge. His policies will be smoothed over by a press that cannot resist turning even the most virulent nonsense into a reasonable-sounding part of a two-sided discussion.
In April, Trump will attend his first White House Correspondents’ Dinner as president, and many of the journalists he spent years stonewalling, denigrating, and maligning will sit next to him and laugh when he jokes about building a wall around the White House or whatever else he thinks up. Ellen will bring him on. Jimmy Fallon will be mussing his hair for years to come.
Of course, it’s not as though all of these norms were fine before Donald Trump showed up. Journalists yukked it up when George W. Bush joked about Iraq’s missing WMDs, and when Barack Obama joked about drone strikes, and that was gross too. These are all customs that deserved to die long ago.
But the one that should be first to go is the long-held notion that the “office” of the presidency has to be respected—that the president is due some extra measure of deference from the rest of us thanks to his (and yes, it’s still always his) exalted position.
It’s a pretty preposterous concept, but it’s also a dangerous one. It places the president—who, lest we forget, is ostensibly supposed to work for us, and not the other way around—on a pedestal they did nothing to earn. The president is not a god just because people voted for him. It’s actions, not titles, that should earn you respect.
Donald Trump is going to be the president, and when you’re the president, you get treated differently.
Adhering to this idea also creates some pretty ugly traditions. Inherent in People‘s decision to give Trump such a celebratory magazine cover is the notion that all presidents are automatically worthy of such treatment, no matter what they’ve done. It’s a custom that’s powerful enough that the magazine threw one of its own journalists under the bus to uphold it.
(And saying that Trump is a newsworthy figure who demands coverage isn’t good enough. Nobody is saying that he should be ignored; the debate is about how to cover him.)
If there was anyone who should definitively kill this nonsense off for good, it’s Donald Trump. It’s not just that all presidents should be treated with more skepticism. It’s that Trump is both a uniquely vile human being and a uniquely dangerous threat to the world—especially to the marginalized communities he targeted with such obvious glee during his campaign.
If their election pledges are anything to go by, Trump and his allies are set to enact a singularly cruel, ruthless agenda. This is exactly the time to oppose him more forcefully than ever, not accommodate his depredations.
During the campaign, BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith, penned a widely shared article defending the mainstream media’s handling of Trump. “[The mainstream media] tradition — if you read the Times, the Post, BuzzFeed News, Politico, and many others — gave us cause to call a liar a liar; a racist a racist; a demagogue a demagogue,” he wrote.
That’s obviously a debatable proposition, but let’s say for the moment that it’s true. If it was OK to call Donald Trump a racist and a liar and a demagogue while he was campaigning, then it’s surely a million times more important to train the same kind of fire at him now that he’s president.
If journalists felt it necessary to telegraph, over and over again, just how extreme Trump was during the election, then it’s even more crucial that they do so when he has a vast amount of real and dangerous power at his disposal. This doesn’t mean that you let Democrats slide on everything, or that you dismiss some of the very real economic and social dislocations that have fueled Trump’s rise to power.
But it means that you never let anyone forget what kind of man is now running the country, and who he is surrounding himself with. It means that you never pretend like we’re living through just another presidency. It means you don’t, for one second, treat Donald Trump as normal.