First things first: Joe Biden definitively won the 2020 presidential election by more than 5 million votes (and counting). The president-elect’s decisive victory is a profound repudiation of the Trump regime, despite fruitless recounts and frivolous litigation challenges. Biden won. Game over. Check please. Yet, instead of conceding, as is customary after losing an election, Donald Trump continues to insist that the election was rigged and he’s the true victor. If this were just a matter of Trump tweeting all-caps election falsehoods that the platform quickly appends with a correction, that would be one thing. But recent statements by administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who last week referenced “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” confirm that Trump has high-level support, including from Senator Lindsey Graham, who attempted to interfere with results in the battleground state of Georgia.
This support bolsters his efforts to convince voters that Biden’s win was illegitimate—and to block Biden’s transition team from accessing the resources necessary for a smooth transfer of power. What’s astounding is that for once the mainstream media appears prepared to take Trump’s falsehoods on outright. The New Yorker crisply defined what is happening as an attempted coup. At CNN, Stephen Collinson raised the alarm, comparing Trump’s administration to a “tottering regime.” The Washington Post discussed “how to cover a coup.” Even Fox News seems to have soured on the administration, with at least one incident in which the channel cut away from a press briefing. It is possible to clearly and decisively cover what is happening—and, more important, to do so across the board, not just in isolated articles or opinion pieces. In a stunning turn, a growing number of publications have joined the chorus of those covering Trump’s efforts seriously.
Outlets should cover lies and disinformation in ways that establish them as such, and provide as much context as possible when doing so. And after four years of begging them to do just that, they’re finally delivering. Is the president plotting a coup to overturn the will of the people? He likely isn’t because his erratic leadership style and lack of interest in following through on his promises makes it difficult for him to stage a coup—even as he goads his followers to contest the election results. But his very vocal resistance to concession is cause for concern. The media’s approach to covering Trump’s antics—and the way ordinary Americans are responding to his behavior on social media—is in some cases sparking panic, but at other times, legacy publications are starting to publish critical analysis of breaking news with a healthy dose of context.
We’ve spent more than four years pleading with corporate-media outlets to accurately cover the Trump presidency rather than parroting his administration’s propaganda and outright lies; finally, we’re starting to see just that, with media fact checking and being selective about their coverage. The way we handle such reporting is important: In this case, Trump’s undermining tactics mean that 86 percent of voters who supported him now reject the validity of the election result. That’s by design. The longer the president and his toadies—Pompeo, Graham, and Attorney General William Barr among them—push back on the election results and fire the people saying the results are valid, the more they undermine faith in all elections. This is not a bug but a feature, particularly if the president is attempting to remain in the White House by force. Calling results into question will also have ripple effects into the 2022 midterms and beyond.
Trump is also leveraging his own agencies against Biden in a petty streak of denialism. The General Services Administration (GSA), for instance, is the government agency that puts presidential transitions in motion, allocating funds and office space for the incoming administration. Emily Murphy, the agency’s administrator, is currently refusing to do so, creating a ripple effect of dangerous consequences for the incoming administration. Without a letter from the GSA certifying the election result, for instance, Biden can’t access top-secret security briefings that would give him an important picture of national security threats. We already know how dangerous this is: In 2002, the 36-day delay in election certification after the 2000 election was cited by the 9/11 Commission as one reason the United States was not prepared for the largest terror attack in U.S. history after the landing of Columbus.
The longer the Trump administration drags its heels, the greater the threat to national security, with the risk that Biden could take office utterly unprepared for the security threats America is facing. Compounding this threat is the recent high turnover at the Pentagon, including Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper via Twitter. Trump has also been relieving others of their duties across the administration, which looks an awful lot like a sweep to prepare the ground for loyalists. Meanwhile, officials with the integrity to challenge the president’s actions are resigning to avoid further enabling the administration. It’s widely rumored that Gina Haspel and Christopher Wray, who head the CIA and the FBI, respectively, may be next on the block—an incredibly dangerous move during a transition, given their role in intelligence gathering and synthesis. (It’s worth noting that both Haspel and Wray were appointed by Trump.) If not a coup, Trump can certainly cause chaos for Biden.
If democracy dies in darkness, the media needs to shine a light.
Keeping track of Trump news is purposefully overwhelming, and media of all kinds can cut through or exacerbate the chaos. Right now, legacy media appear to be tracking his activities while making it very clear that his refusal to concede is rooted in false beliefs, striking a balance between covering and parroting material. This move is heartening, speaking to a shift that’s been a long time coming. The true test, however, will be in the medium to long term: Can the media maintain this clear-eyed coverage as lawsuits drag out and the cast of characters gets larger? Or will it be blurred into the background as so many other shocking controversies—from children incarcerated at the border to intercepting needed personal protection equipment—have? Or will the media and the public have the staying power to follow internecine lawsuits and cut through the Trump chaos?
Their next step seems clear: Legacy publications are expending less energy on Trump’s attention-getting schemes and elevating less explosive but crucial news: For example, the Washington Post published a well-reported story about how the president-elect plans to handle the public-health nightmare he’s inheriting and the New York Times is following the impact of the federal leadership vacuum on a new administration. Whatever coup Trump is or isn’t trying to orchestrate, there’s no more time for puff pieces, entreaties to understand Trump voters, or oxygen for bad-faith actors. If democracy dies in darkness, the media needs to shine a light. For the first time in a long time, it feels like they might actually be doing just that…if only they can keep the momentum going.