Thoughts on Trump's rally in Des Moines and the value of Trump coverage more broadly
You may be done with Trump. But Trump is not done with you.
One of the most vexing questions in political journalism right now is how to cover former President Donald Trump as he holds rallies for a 2024 presidential campaign that is all but official.
My unvarnished and unequivocal coverage of Trump — perhaps especially his rallies — is one of the reasons I have the audience that I do and am in position to launch this newsletter. But when I started watching every Trump rally back in 2017, he was president. What he said inherently had news value. That dynamic has changed now that he’s out of power.
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At one end of the spectrum of opinions about how to cover the 2021 version of Trump is the view that his public statements and rallies serve little purpose beyond spreading hate and misinformation, and aren’t really worthy of attention. Sure, journalists generally improved at calling out Trump’s lies by the end of his presidency, but with so many other important things going on right now, there’s no reason to give Trump and his tired schtick oxygen.
The opposing view is that as the leader of the Republican Party and its presumptive 2024 presidential nominee, what Trump says still matters and needs to be covered. As hateful and misinformed as he may be, it’s a mistake to ignore the sayings and doings of an influential aspiring authoritarian.
To me, these views aren’t really in conflict. We should be wary of giving Trump free publicity, but as leader of a party that currently holds 50 seats in the Senate and is the betting favorite to take back the House next year, he needs to be responsibly covered. I agree that journalists shouldn’t help Trump circumvent his Twitter ban by tweeting out statements of his that are chock full of smears and misinformation, but I also think it’s important for people who aren’t immersed in MAGA media to understand what his incessant lying about the 2020 election means for the stakes of 2022 and beyond.
As much as some may want to pretend otherwise, the fact is that the Republican Party literally did not have a platform in 2020 beyond what the former president says — and not even an insurrection could persuade leading Republicans to distance themselves. So understanding Trump is key to understanding the Republican Party.
And that brings us to Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa.
There wasn’t much new in Trump’s rally in Iowa. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t notable.
Two days after Trump went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and echoed the racist opening line of his first presidential campaign by accusing Haitian migrants of spreading AIDS, top Iowa Republicans provided the latest demonstration Saturday of how Trump’s hold over the party remains absolute, with Gov. Kim Reynolds, Sen. Chuck Grassley, and Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson introducing him before his rally in Des Moines.
Grassley’s night encapsulated the corner Republicans have backed themselves into. Before the rally, Iowa’s senior senator went on Newsmax and turned reality on its head, arguing that Trump actually worked to thwart the January 6 insurrection (nevermind that tape of Trump pressuring a Georgia official to “find” votes for him) and as such is the victim of another witch hunt.
Grassley was later invited onstage by Trump during the rally to receive an endorsement — the 88-year-old recently announced he’s running for another term in the Senate — and offered an extremely cynical rationale for accepting it.
"If I didn't accept the endorsement of a person that's got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn't be too smart,” Grassley said.
Trump’s Des Moines audience actually seemed rather bored by the parts of his speech devoted to lying about the 2020 election. But before he got there he offered them a heavy dose of racism.
Trump called Haitian migrants “uneducated,” defended his Muslim ban by saying “we really don't want people in our country who are going to blow up our cities,” and said of Afghan refugees, “you're going to be hearing from those people over the coming years in a very bad way."
People may be numb to this sort of bigotry coming from Trump, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. On the contrary, racist fear-mongering coming from the leader of a major political party is extremely notable.
Trump lied about the 2020 election throughout his speech — Democrats “used Covid in order to cheat and rig,” he claimed at one point, even though red states use mail voting and there's no evidence of election fraud — and was cheered when he noted (falsely) that unlike Hillary Clinton, he never conceded.
Again, a leader of a major party turning his refusal to concede an election he lost into an applause line at a rally is an important marker of democratic erosion in this country. That doesn’t mean CNN and MSNBC should be carrying Trump’s speeches live, but people should be aware of the sort of stuff he’s normalizing among the GOP base. And if the past five years have taught us anything, there’s nothing Trump could do to lose the support of GOP elected officials who prioritize their political future over principle.
Chuck Grassley even admitted as much.
I’ll keep watching so you don’t have to
While I owe some of my notoriety as a journalist to my coverage of Trump, this newsletter will not be about him. But Trumpism is the specter looming behind much of what I’ll have to say about the 2022 and 2024 elections.
In the Q&A that launched Public Notice, political scientist Brian Klaas told me he doesn’t think America will survive another Trump presidency. That’s debatable, but what isn’t is that Republicans not only continue to refuse every opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the man who earlier this year tried to intimidate Congress against certifying his election loss, but are eager to take the stage with him when he comes to their communities.
You may be done with Trump — and believe me, I get it — but Trumpism is not done with us. Now that I’m independent, I plan to keep on watching Trump so you don’t have to, and using my editorial judgment to separate the signal from the noise.
Your most important words Aaron are: "so you don't have to". Thank you. I do not know how you can stand it but then, you have Mia and that must help.
It's pretty obvious that left-wing media miss Trump more than anyone. You literally earn your paycheck by fearmongering with "Trumpism" every single day. You are stunning and brave.