The emergency mentality conflated Trumpian sordidness with something world-historical and treasonous, as in the overwrought Russia coverage seeded by the Steele dossier. It turned figures peripheral to national politics, from Nick Sandmann to Kyle Rittenhouse, into temporary avatars of incipient fascism. It invented anti-Trump paladins, from Michael Avenatti to Andrew Cuomo, who turned out to embody their own sort of moral turpitude. And it instilled an industrywide fear, palpable throughout the 2020 election, of any kind of coverage that might give too much aid and comfort to Trumpism — whether it touched on the summertime riots or Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
Now you could argue that at least this mind-set achieved practical success, since Trump did lose in 2020. But he didn’t lose overwhelmingly, he gained voters in places the establishment did not expect, and he was able to turn media hostility to his advantage in his quest to keep control of his party, even in defeat. Meanwhile, the public’s trust in the national press declined during the Trump era and became radically more polarized, with Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents maintaining a certain degree of confidence in the media and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents going very much the other way.
This points to the essential problem with the idea that just a little less media neutrality, a little more overt alarmism, would put Trumpism in its place. You can’t suppress a populist insurgency just by rallying the establishment if suspicion of the establishment is precisely what’s generating support for populism in the first place. Instead, you need to tell the truth about populism’s dangers while convincing skeptical readers that you can be trusted to describe reality in full.