I have never considered President Joe Biden a thinker of big ideas. Former President Barack Obama, sure. Mr. Biden, not so much.
But in his news conference last week, Mr. Biden said something that I have been thinking about since. And the more I chew on it as I try to sort through all the major stories vying for the media and the public’s attention this week, the keener an insight Mr. Biden’s words seem to offer.
“I predict to you, your children and grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral theses on the issue of who succeeded, autocracy or democracy. Because that is what is at stake,” Mr. Biden said. “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
He said it in the context of a question about China and international alliances, but he was talking just as much about us. And the reason he understands the existential importance of this struggle at home when so many bigger thinkers in media and American life don’t is that he’s living it every day at the personal level in an ongoing battle with former President Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump, who was cleanly defeated in the general election, just won’t stand down and shut up in his forced retirement. He keeps calling into talk shows, like Jeanine Pirro’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine” on Fox News. Saturday night, he said on her show he would probably visit the southern border because of the mess he claims Mr. Biden made there. Isn’t that going to be a circus? Remember during the Obama administration when Fox host Sean Hannity and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry dressed in ersatz commando gear and patrolled the Rio Grande?
But despite the ridiculous posturing and foolishness of these men, that very relationship between Mr. Trump and Fox News is what makes the confrontation between autocracy and democracy so deadly, as we saw Jan. 6 at the Capitol. Trump is an autocrat, make no mistake about it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines autocracy as a “government in which one person possesses unlimited power.” Is that not how Mr. Trump behaved in office, as if he had absolute power? And did he not prove himself willing to destroy our democracy by instigating a mob of his followers to try to overturn the results of a presidential election?
There have been other dangerous right-wing politicians throughout history like Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. But he was only a junior senator from Wisconsin with a serious drinking problem, not president of the United States. And while he had the backing of the Hearst-owned newspaper chain, there was nothing in right-wing media with the reach and power of Fox News. And now Mr. Trump also has Newsmax and One America News Network competing with Fox to see which can be more supportive of the former president’s lies and anti-democratic efforts.
Every major story confronting the nation this week connected at the macro level to the autocracy v. democracy paradigm proposed by Mr. Biden.
Start with the outrageous efforts of the Republican Party in Georgia and other states to make it harder for citizens, especially Black citizens, to vote. Mr. Trump, the autocrat, is all in on that one, while Mr. Biden, the Democrat, is looking to make voting easier and more expansive at the federal level.
But Mr. Trump is not just an autocrat; fascist is an even better term to describe him. The Merriam-Webster dictionary adds a belief in racism and nationalism to the core definition of an autocrat, and Trump is nothing if not racist with his ugly appeals to white supremacists and uber-nationalistic with his border policies. Much of his support comes from those whites who cannot accept the demographic inevitability of a multicultural America.
The same forces of power and racism can be seen in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. The autocrat or fascist enforces absolute rule through the use of police. The death of George Floyd was a graphic representation of how some police continue to illegally use deadly force on Black citizens.
Absolute power was also at the core of the pandemic story after CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed top doctors in government Sunday who said that Mr. Trump bullied and intimidated them from giving the best and most accurate information to citizens in 2020 on the COVID crisis.
Media, especially cable news, are doing a solid job of covering these stories at the micro level. But Americans need more in this complicated and profoundly troubled era. They need to understand the bigger picture and how much danger our democracy is still in.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.