Featured Image
Trump at the September 2016 Values Voter Summit.Andrew Parish / LifeSiteNews

January 30, 2020 (American Thinker) — In early October, Chuck Todd stared stone-faced into MSNBC's living rooms and intoned gravely, “I don't say this lightly, but let's be frank — a national nightmare is upon us. The basic rules of our democracy are under attack from the president[.] … [T]hat all but ensures his impeachment in the House of Representatives. … This moment should arguably be a national emergency. The Founding Fathers would have considered it a national emergency — if the president publicly lobbied multiple governments to interfere in the next election. It's tough to say lightly, but this is the moment we're at.”

Said lightly or not, coming a week after House speaker Nancy Pelosi's announcement of an impeachment inquiry, Charles David “Chuck” Todd — the 12th incarnation of Meet the Press moderators and NBC News's political director, responsible for all aspects of NBC's political coverage — was initiating a “moral panic.”

Using his platform as the voice of “the longest-running program on network television,” and arguably mass media's highest-profile soldier in the Trump resistance, Todd's intention was deliberate and unmistakable: to instill public fear.

It had moral panic written all over it — perfect for an impeachment.

While the term “moral panic” is not new — with earlier incarnations by Marshall McLuhan (1964) and Britain's Jock Young (1971) — its most detailed and popular application as a sociological concept was developed by South African criminologist Stanley Cohen in his 1972 treatise Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which outlined the five stages of moral panics.

First, something or someone — Cohen's “folk devil” — “emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Second, its “deviant” character and nature are “presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media.” Third, reacting to the media's portrayal, public alarm is aroused, and moral barricades are erected by editors, politicians, and other “right-thinking people.” Fourth, “socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions.” In the final stage, “more serious and long-lasting repercussions … might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.”

Laying the key elements and key players in the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump onto Stanley Cohen's five-stage template, it is Moral Panic Theory 101.

Most crucial to Todd's (or any) moral panic is the powerful role of the mass media, which in this case not only has defined, reported, and managed the “threat” posed by the president, but also branded him as “deviant” — someone who menaces our culture, our principles, and our way of life.

Perhaps this is what Chuck Todd had in mind the day before his “a national nightmare is upon us” declaration, when he offered his assessment of the president's damaged soul: “[h]e's a cornered animal, but he's a very effective, vicious one if he needs to be.” Todd's cohort, MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman, concurred: “right, and a cornered animal is a dangerous animal.”

Following moral panic theory, in one calculated statement, Todd delivered two important characterizations of the president's nature. He reinforced Trump's danger and “deviancy” by framing him as a trapped, feral beast capable of untold savagery and vilified him as an immoral, irrational creature with no ethical compass — while at the same time validating his own nobility and that of the mass media.

Witness Rep. Jamie Raskin (D–Md.), picking up Todd's moral baton with CBS's Major Garrett: “One of the critical components of this story is the absolute moral degeneration of the Republican Party. They're behaving like members of a religious cult.”

As the impeachment's moral panic has accelerated, it has triggered a phenomenon Professor Cohen termed the “deviance amplification spiral,” in which news coverage is intentionally repeated, repackaged, and over-sensationalized to cast the folk devil (Trump)'s behavior as part of a greater pattern of deviant activity — essentially feeding and “spiraling” the story disproportionately.

Consider the House and Senate hearings and their reportage — where pre-packaged anti-Trump tropes have been rebroadcast in bovine assent on virtually all major media outlets throughout the entire impeachment process. Again, adhering to moral panic principles, this greater emphasis reinforces public fear and creates a sense of pressure and urgency — that the “Trump crisis” is out of control, getting worse, and only the tip of the iceberg — not only fueling escalation of the impeachment frenzy, but also validating demands for immediate constitutional intervention and remedy.

This brings us to Cohen's last stage and the “more serious and long-lasting repercussions” of the impeachment panic. With no articulation (or even an accusation) of a statutory “crime” or any tangible evidence of an actual risk or danger to the republic, Todd and his mass media comrades have successfully fulfilled their assigned roles in the indictment of President Trump as an abuser of power and obstructer of Congress — not to mention a destroyer of the constitution and an existential threat to societal order. As supposed protectors and defenders of the moral high ground, they have purposely advanced a moral panic in the form of a publicly staged morality play — a primal test between good and evil — exhorting half of America to revile and to remove President Trump as an imminent peril to the 2020 election and to democracy as we know it.

But to the other half of America, once again, President Trump is forcing Democrats and the mass media to reveal themselves as desperate for power and purveyors of a terrifying future where hysteria and accusation “trump” evidence and due process, and where moral bitterness twists people with artificial values and a dangerous sense of presumed dignity.

Our national moral panic continues…

Russell Paul La Valle is a New York–based political commentator whose work has appeared in many major newspapers, magazines, and online opinion websites. He is also a former contributing editor to the philosophical think-tank the Atlas Society, and his commentaries can be found at https://russellpaullavalle.com/other-writing.

Published with permission from the American Thinker.