The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

“Mainstream news outlets will find themselves in a position to justify treating Trump as a leader in temporary exile as opposed to a powerless retiree.”

During a press conference on November 14, 2016, then-President Barack Obama made clear that he had no intention of trying to hamstring President-elect Donald Trump, and that once out of office, he’d step back from public life for a period of time.

“I think it’s important for us to let him make his decisions,” Obama said. “And I think the American people will judge, over the course of the next couple of years, whether they like what they see and whether these are the kinds of policies and this is the direction that they want to see the country going.”

Much in the way that offering a gracious concession speech is meant to help heal divides between supporters of winning and losing candidates, so too is the informal tradition of outgoing presidents not immediately criticizing their successors. (Obama didn’t criticize Trump by name until October 2018.) And much in the way that Trump didn’t offer a concession at all after losing the 2020 election, it’s a safe bet that he’s not planning to press pause on his political commentary in 2021.

For years, people have asked what the press will do once Trump is gone. It’s a fair question. Since announcing his run for president in June 2015, Trump has been the center of the news media’s solar system. Just as Earth could not survive without the sun, the American press has developed a similarly dependent relationship to Trump. And just as the sun isn’t going anywhere soon, neither is Trump. He may leave office on January 20, but he won’t truly be out of power until the press stops treating him as an inherently newsworthy figure.

Mainstream media organizations need to quit Trump cold turkey, but won’t, potentially giving rise to a new sort of Shadow President Trump. Since Trump has tens of millions of devoted followers and the potential to make another run for president in 2024, it’s easy to see how mainstream news outlets will find themselves in a position to justify treating him as a leader in temporary exile as opposed to a powerless retiree. By doing this, the press will risk delegitimizing the actual government in favor of a shadow president temporarily unable to enact policy until an expected January 2025 return to power.

If there’s hope of avoiding such a fate, journalists must be deliberate in how they cover Trump once he leaves office. He will probably hold rallies, he will inevitably use Twitter to play armchair quarterback with the Biden presidency, and he’s likely to continue to claim that the election was rigged against him. Whether the public comes to view these as the sad cries of a man unable to accept reality or as the beginning of the greatest comeback story in American history will rely entirely on the press.

During a press conference on November 14, 2016, then-President Barack Obama made clear that he had no intention of trying to hamstring President-elect Donald Trump, and that once out of office, he’d step back from public life for a period of time.

“I think it’s important for us to let him make his decisions,” Obama said. “And I think the American people will judge, over the course of the next couple of years, whether they like what they see and whether these are the kinds of policies and this is the direction that they want to see the country going.”

Much in the way that offering a gracious concession speech is meant to help heal divides between supporters of winning and losing candidates, so too is the informal tradition of outgoing presidents not immediately criticizing their successors. (Obama didn’t criticize Trump by name until October 2018.) And much in the way that Trump didn’t offer a concession at all after losing the 2020 election, it’s a safe bet that he’s not planning to press pause on his political commentary in 2021.

For years, people have asked what the press will do once Trump is gone. It’s a fair question. Since announcing his run for president in June 2015, Trump has been the center of the news media’s solar system. Just as Earth could not survive without the sun, the American press has developed a similarly dependent relationship to Trump. And just as the sun isn’t going anywhere soon, neither is Trump. He may leave office on January 20, but he won’t truly be out of power until the press stops treating him as an inherently newsworthy figure.

Mainstream media organizations need to quit Trump cold turkey, but won’t, potentially giving rise to a new sort of Shadow President Trump. Since Trump has tens of millions of devoted followers and the potential to make another run for president in 2024, it’s easy to see how mainstream news outlets will find themselves in a position to justify treating him as a leader in temporary exile as opposed to a powerless retiree. By doing this, the press will risk delegitimizing the actual government in favor of a shadow president temporarily unable to enact policy until an expected January 2025 return to power.

If there’s hope of avoiding such a fate, journalists must be deliberate in how they cover Trump once he leaves office. He will probably hold rallies, he will inevitably use Twitter to play armchair quarterback with the Biden presidency, and he’s likely to continue to claim that the election was rigged against him. Whether the public comes to view these as the sad cries of a man unable to accept reality or as the beginning of the greatest comeback story in American history will rely entirely on the press.

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