Journalists tackle a political what-if: What might a second Trump presidency look like?

Donald Trump

ERIC GAY / AP

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks to Texas state troopers and guardsmen at the South Texas International Airport, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Edinburg, Texas.

By David Bauder, Associated Press

Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023 | 8:27 a.m.

NEW YORK — Even before anyone has cast a vote in a 2024 presidential primary, the attention of many political journalists has shifted to Jan. 20, 2025.

There has been a flurry of recent stories about the implications of a potential second presidency for Donald Trump, and his team’s planning for Inauguration Day and beyond. Polls show his continued dominance over Republican rivals and the likelihood of a close general election.

The New York Times reporting team of Charlie Savage, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman has been mining that topic since the summer, and last week wrote in depth about the former president’s authoritarian impulses, and the possibility of fewer checks on his power. On Sunday, they examined whether Trump would leave NATO.

A special issue of The Atlantic magazine released last week collected essays by 24 writers on how a Trump presidency would affect things like foreign policy, immigration, journalism and climate change. Editor Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that people should read every one, “though perhaps not in one sitting, for reasons of mental hygiene.”

Among several other pieces:

1. The Washington Post outlined plans by Trump and allies to use the federal government to punish opponents, and Editor-at-large Robert Kagan suggested that a Trump dictatorship was “increasingly inevitable.”

2. The Associated Press has written extensively about the implications of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Also, detailed planning by conservative groups for a second Trump term was outlined by AP.

3. Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote about Trump’s “recipe for a shockingly raw power grab.”

4. Axios collected speculation on the possible staffing of a second Trump administration. Can you say Vice President Tucker Carlson?

TOO MUCH? EVEN TRUMP’S PEOPLE PRESCRIBE CAUTION

The volume of stories had reached the point where the Trump campaign at the end of last week sent a memo calling on allies and former aides to cool it, saying messages about a potential second term from anyone but the former president and his team were “an unwelcomed distraction.”

“The stakes are high,” said David Halbfinger, politics editor at the Times. “We saw on Jan. 6 of 2021, when we cover politics, we don’t just cover elections. We cover democracy now. Everybody has to take their jobs seriously, and it’s good to see that everybody is.”

For decades, journalists have been criticized for concentrating too much on the “horse race” aspect of politics: who’s winning, who’s losing and the machinations of campaigns. With the Republican and Democratic nomination processes uncompetitive so far, there’s less taste for it.

Much of the recent reporting is an emphatic example of what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “stakes journalism,” or examining the potential consequences of an election.

As Trump talks about retribution and his challengers fail to dent his popularity, the story line about threats to democracy “becomes more and more plausible,” Rosen said. “Horse race coverage feels more and more trivial. At least it does to me.”

At the same time, reporters have discovered the extent to which Trump allies have been specifically planning for a return to power, Halbfinger said. Journalists have learned — or should learn — to take seriously what the former president says while campaigning.

“The skeptics who might have consoled themselves about the first term of Trump, saying that he’s too incompetent to get things done, they can’t console themselves by saying Trump and his people don’t know what they’re doing this time,” he said. “They’ve learned a lot and they’re preparing.”

Goldberg said in an interview that he began thinking of The Atlantic’s special issue when reporting this summer for a piece on General Mark Milley’s actions in the waning days of the Trump administration. He said he saw the value of putting in one place all of the potential impacts of Trump 2.0 — in what The Atlantic labels “a warning.”

While he has no specific metrics about reader response, Goldberg said “I didn’t think it would be so galvanizing.”

MORE SUCH COVERAGE? OR IS IT BIASED?

Rosen and Margaret Sullivan, who hosts the podcast “American Crisis: Can Journalism Save Democracy?”, have repeatedly urged for more of this coverage. Journalists should report “with far more vigor — and repetition — than they do about Biden being 80 years old,” Sullivan wrote last month in a column for The Guardian.

Both Sullivan and Rosen said they were encouraged by the recent reporting. Not surprisingly, that’s not the case among Trump supporters.

Jordan Boyd said in the Federalist last week that corporate media was trying to “gaslight Americans” and are leading a coordinated effort to paint a potential 2024 Trump victory as the beginning of a cruel and unyielding dictatorship.

There’s a “whole new level of panic” in the media about polls that have shown Trump matching up well against President Joe Biden, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center.

“There’s a frustration with, ‘Why can’t we destroy this guy?’” Graham said. “I think everyone figured that 91 indictments would do the trick and it did the opposite.”

The question remains whether the new reporting will be noticed by people who rely mostly on conservative media.

“I’m just not sure it’s sinking in to the public in general,” said Sullivan, incoming executive director of a journalism ethics center at Columbia University. “There’s a lot of people who understand there’s a threat to democracy that comes with a second Trump presidency and there are a lot of people who continue to think that it’s a normal presidential contest. I don’t think that’s the case.”

Goldberg said he hopes people hand a copy of The Atlantic to “their on-the-fence uncle” over the holidays.

“We have to do whatever we think is right and we have to try as hard as we can to advance the ideas that we think are true and good,” he said. “If people listen, great. And if people don’t listen, we still have to do it. That’s our role. We also want to be able to tell our grandchildren that we tried hard.”

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