Trump is hiding his fascist plans in plain sight

Donald Trump Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images
Donald Trump Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images
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Watching cable news is a frequent source of despair, but one especially fraught spiral occurred Monday while subjecting myself to "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. The segment guest was Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, who was promoting his magazine's thorough, frightening and entirely accurate warning that Donald Trump's goal is to end American democracy and replace it with a fascist system. A variety of Atlantic journalists from across the political spectrum contributed with heavily researched and smart analysis laying out Trump's agenda of ending the rule of law, using extra-legal violence to suppress dissent and securing his power so thoroughly voters will be unable to remove him peacefully.

There's been a surge of such reporting in recent weeks, from some of the most reputable publications in the country. On Monday, the New York Times published a lengthy exposé of Trump's long history of admiring authoritarian dictators, even ones who use murder to silence opponents. This follows another investigation into the ominously named "Project 2025," created by a team of very smart but evil people who want to dismantle democracy and are working through the details of how to pull it off. The Washington Post has even tried to draw attention to Trump's plans through listicles that use bold fonts and short paragraphs, so even the drunkest uncle could probably read it — if he wanted to.

It's all very much journalism of the kind called for by NYU professor Jay Rosen, who encourages reporting on "not the odds, but the stakes."

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Goldberg outlined his hopes for this coverage: "With any luck, maybe at Christmas, people could read it and bring it to their relatives who are on the fence and say, look, here's what's going to happen. Do you want this or not want this? It's very simple."

That was when my heart sank. Because while it should be that simple, it's not. A Venn diagram illustrating "people who aren't sure who they're going to vote for" and "people who are willing to read the Atlantic, the Washington Post or the New York Times" would show two circles with little to no overlap. Put these articles in front of the people who most need to hear the message, and most of them will not get past the headline. It's too easy to dismiss it as liberal hysterics, especially when headlines have language like "A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable."

In most ways, Trump is as dumb as rocks, but he and his team are alarmingly smart about how to manipulate the media. In this case, he's figured out the best way to keep the muddled middle of American voters from knowing what he's up to is to publicize it in the New York Times. It's like hiding Christmas gifts in the basket of cleaning supplies, knowing the kids will never voluntarily look there. The plot against America is hidden in plain sight.

For close readers, what is most striking about the reporting on Trump's nefarious schemes is that reporters clearly got the information directly from Trump and his own team. The sources for the New York Times report on Project 2025, for instance, are primarily people working for or with the Trump campaign. It's a conspiracy to dismantle democracy, but not secret like most conspiracies. This one has its own website that anyone with an internet browser can read. (But none will.) Nor is it just Trump staffers confessing, like James Bond villains, to Maggie Haberman. Much of this information comes straight from Trump's mouth on the campaign trail, where he directly channels Mussolini and Hitler by promising to "root out" the "vermin" who vote against him, while also valorizing the insurrectionists of Jan. 6, 2021.

As Goldberg said on MSNBC, "All you have to do is listen to Donald Trump and the loyalists around Donald Trump. He is telling you what's going to happen."

Trump is flagrant about his goals because he knows the only people who are paying attention are already either fierce supporters or people who were going to vote against him anyway. The huge swath of Americans who may not vote or aren't sure who to vote for, however, aren't paying close enough attention to know what's going on. They didn't hear Trump call people "vermin." They don't know what Project 2025 is. They get their news from Facebook or TikTok, if they get much of it at all. So odds are high that, on the rare chance they are actually exposed to the New York Times or the Washington Post, they will roll their eyes, mutter something about how they hate "politics" and not read a goddamn word.

The issue here is not the MAGA diehards, who, despite their reliance on mendacious sources like Fox News, do know about Trump's fascist plans — and welcome the nefarious schemes. The problem is people who would tell you that they're "moderate" and dislike "both sides." Such people don't trust right-wing media to tell them the truth. But they don't trust mainstream sources, either.

Since the only people absorbing this message are liberals who are already convinced about Trump, the alarmism might backfire. As Greg Sargent at the Washington Post puts it, "Undue fatalism could even prove counterproductive, de-energizing voter opposition exactly when Trump is brazenly projecting his dictatorial intentions."

Indeed, that is likely one of Trump's major goals: To project the inevitability of his dictatorship so his opponents just roll over in defeat before the election even happens. But Biden won in 2020, even with Trump doing everything in his power to steal the election. He can do it again. But one thing that probably doesn't help is articles about the Trump threat that are only read by those who already get it.

The irony is that the media did this to themselves, by spending decades in the cozy-but-misleading framework of "bothsidesism." By refusing repeatedly to adjudicate the factual claims of politicians, the media trained Americans to view all political rhetoric as equally suspicious. Even on subjects as scientifically sound as climate change, we instead got reporting that would report "one side" and the "other side," without noting that only the climate-change deniers were lying. The result was a public that has come to believe that everyone in politics is full of crap, and that nothing anyone says about anything in politics can be trusted.

Trump and his cronies manipulate this state of affairs with a tactic so childish that it's painful to acknowledge how well it works: The "I know you are, but what am I?" game. When Democrats make a truthful accusation against Trump (liar, sexual predator, fraud, racist, insurrectionist, fascist), he flips around and says the same thing about Democrats, knowing that media outlets will report that "both sides" are "making accusations," while often avoiding the unpleasant task of telling audiences who is speaking honestly.

Now that some mainstream media outlets are putting on their big-boy pants and telling the truth about Trump's violent facism, Republicans have responded with the most shameless psychological projection. Witness Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, accusing liberals of being the real violent fascists because they speak out against violent fascism.

This stuff isn't about persuading anyone. It's about extending permission to self-styled "moderates" to tune it all out as pointless political noise. It feels smart to say that "both sides" make false accusations of violence, while actually being lazy and dumb. Only one side actually stormed the Capitol, a fact that J.D. Vance hopes you will forget.

Trump's tactic is reminiscent of how sexual predators work. They wait until no one is looking and then, as Trump memorably described, "grab them by the p***y." The victim can speak out, but she will be ignored by people who claim they can't possibly tell who's telling the truth: Her, or her alleged assailant. "Both sides," the skeptics will say to the victim, are equally valid and therefore no one is to be believed. The "neutral" stance in such a quarrel, of course, only benefits the attacker.

By sharing his fascist plans in the New York Times, where only liberals will read it, Trump is pulling the p***y-grab move. The goal is to scare liberals, so when they freak out on cable news and social media, Trump's loyal followers can high-five and laugh about how they're "triggering" their opponents. But it's also works on that third party being asked to pick a side. When that person hears liberals complain about how Trump is grabbing democracy by the you-know-what, they throw up their hands and say, "Who's to say you're not the one making it up?" Point to the New York Times as hard as you want, but those folks will treat it as a suspect source, having been trained for decades not to trust the media.

None of this is to say the situation is hopeless. For one thing, Trump, in his overconfidence, keeps making videos saying vile things, which makes it harder for apologists to wave it off as "Trump derangement syndrome." Those clips just need to be put into a context where fence-sitters might actually see them. Not in a lengthy New York Times article none will read, but perhaps in paid advertisements or on social media. Trump is also scheduled to go to trial in March for his attempted coup. Courtroom drama has a way of catching people's attention in a way that a New York Times article does not. That's why Trump is doing everything in his power to delay the trial. He knows it may shatter the normie-ignorance barrier in ways a million Washington Post op-eds never could.

Above all, readers, you and I have agency. We can't make a Trump-curious cousin put down TikTok to read the New York Times. But we may find they will listen to a person they know and trust. It's frustratingly counterintuitive, but often people are more open to hearing from non-experts than experts, because they're suspicious that the latter have an "agenda." Especially if conversations with regular people are framed in personal terms, such as "I'm afraid of the chaos Trump would bring," or "I worry about our pregnant niece not getting medical care under an abortion ban." That just might cut through the sense that it's all political hot air and remind people of the stakes. But handing them the Atlantic and asking them to read it is just asking for a second Trump term.