How the press — like the police — missed the looming Capitol coup

Insurrection in plain sight

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In the wake of Wednesday's vicious and deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, journalists are rightly pointing a finger at law enforcement for being caught off guard. "Federal and local officials said Thursday they did not have intelligence suggesting any violent mob was preparing to attack the Capitol, even as demonstrators were publicly saying on social media they were not planning a typical protest," CNN reported.

"Law enforcement officials also sought to explain the security failure, saying that they had no indication that the day would turn violent," the Times noted. "But Trump supporters had for weeks openly discussed on social media their plans to protest Congress’s certification of the Electoral College results, a typically ceremonial affair, and in some cases pledged to fight for their cause."

Another Times dispatched noted, "The seeds that led to the insurrection were hidden in plain sight, and that "language of revolution and civil war is commonplace" at conservative media outlets. The print headline for this news story, which ran Sunday, was, " If You Didn't See Invasion Coming, You Weren’t Watching Michigan."

And this: "If chaos in the Capitol shocked the country, one of the most disturbing aspects of this most disturbing day was that it could be seen coming. The president himself had all but circled it on the nation’s calendar. [emphasis added]

The looming riot was hiding in plain sight.

On Monday, the Arizona Republican Party, which has entirely backed the idea that the election was "stolen" from Trump, quoted the mercenary Rambo movie character:  “This is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something.”

"It is obviously dangerous for a political party to suggest that a political issue might demand that people sacrifice their lives to obtain a resolution," the Washington Post noted — days after the deadly coup attempt.

Question: If Trump supporters had "openly discussed" for weeks trying to physically stop Congress' certification of the Electoral College results, if the bloody seeds of insurrection "were hidden in plain sight," why did the press miss such a big story? Why was the media caught off guard last week, just like the Capitol police? Why was there a refusal to consider Trump’s white supporters to be a national threat?



It's hard for news outlets to now claim they knew the mob story was looming, because if they knew, media voices would have done something in advance of the storm. They would have used their institutional voices and demanded Trump resign. They would have insisted the Wednesday rally to be canceled. They would have urged that the  National Guard be called out preemptively.

I didn't see any of that. Instead, I saw a deliberate failure of imagination by the press when covering Trump, and the radical revolution he's been trying to lead.

"What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” one anonymous "senior Republican official" told the Washington Post last November, as Trump began marshaling his forces to overturn an election he lost by seven million votes. "It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20."

That Republican view proved to be dangerously naïve. But it also seemed to be the view of much of the political press, which covered the unfolding insurrection story as a process one — How are Republicans dealing with this? What should President-election Joe Biden say? When will the certification process take place?

There certainly wasn't a life-or-death urgency to the coverage. Even news that Trump had discussed imposing martial law during a White House meeting in late December produced mostly shrugs from the press. So did Trump’s historic refusal last fall to say he’d abide by the peaceful transfer of power. That story didn’t generate a single page-one headline in any major newspaper in America.

Missing between Election Day and Coup Day were the media four-alarm fires. Seven days ago I did a search and could not find a single, straight-ahead news headline from a major American media organization that included "coup" in the headline directly describing Trump's actions over the last two months, even after he called the Georgia secretary of state and told him to go "find" 11,780 Trump votes so he could be declared the Peach State winner.

"Coup," "insurrection," "sedition" and "treason." For months, those words were deemed to be off-limits in newsrooms as Trump used every means possible to overturn the presidential election, and disenfranchise 81 million Biden supporters. It was the most audacious campaign to destroy free and fair elections in the country's nearly 240-year history.

This followed the media's regrettable self-imposed guidelines over the last four years of not calling Trump a "liar," a "racist," or "unstable" in its news coverage. The results of collective self-censorship — the results of playing unnecessary word games in an effort not to inflame conservatives? Missing the looming coup story; not taking seriously the idea that Trump supporters pose a clear and present danger to our democracy. 

Over the weekend, CNN announced the mob attack last Wednesday represented, "the day America realized how dangerous Donald Trump is." But millions of American knew how dangerous Trump was years ago. It seems astounding that it would take journalists working for leading news outlets until last week, when bomb-making rioters stormed the Capitol, to realize the threat he poses to our democracy. The CNN report also claimed that over the years, "Much of America grew numb to his circus act, shrugging off the magnetic power of Trumpism as though it was a passing fad."

Law enforcement deserves a huge amount of blame for missing the red flags in the days and weeks before the looming insurrection, which was plotted in public via social media. The press also needs to ask itself how they missed the most important political story in a generation.

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Writing in The Guardian, Sidney Blumenthal provides some much needed context with, "Trump's Maga Insurrectionists Were Perverse U.S. Civil War Re-enactors":

In a valentine to the vandals of the Capitol, Trump proclaimed, “We love you,” and, “You’re special.” The rabble was a mélange of true believers in conspiracy theories, paranoid delusions and twisted history. For the QAnon followers, their presence at the Capitol was the moment when the storm of the rapture would bring about the revelation of Trump’s final plan and his restoration to perpetual power. It was the culmination of Trump’s promise for apocalyptic change. For neo-Nazis, carrying flags with abstract versions of broken swastikas, and tattooed latter-day Klansmen, it was a stand for racial supremacy. Charging the gates of the Capitol was storming the gates of heaven. Or, alternatively, it was a heroic last-ditch defense of Trump’s bunker from the onslaught of hordes of impure infidels led by Joe Biden.

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Kelsey Waldon, "With God on Our Side"

I've been thinking a lot in recent days about this iconic Bob Dylan song about American power.

From author Nuala O'Connor:

Dylan attempts to show that, contrary to the myth, the power of God in shaping the country's destiny was perhaps not a regenerative force nor the antecedent for establishing the "throne of freedom." It was, quite to the contrary, but a cloak for just another form of oppression and tyranny. What then does a person do if the hand of God is removed from our destiny? For Dylan, as for [Woodie] Guthrie, the answer lies in the individual.

As it happens, standout singer-songwriter Kelsey Waldon recently recorded a stirring version of Dylan's classic.

Through many a dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.