Who does The Atlantic hope to reach with its ‘If Trump Wins’ issue? Hint: It’s not MAGA World

The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg recalls a short-lived period when it seemed impossible to imagine that Donald Trump would once again be a candidate for president. That moment lasted from the night of Jan. 6, 2021, after the attack on the Capitol until Jan. 28, 2021, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago to bend his knee and welcome Trump back into the fold.

Goldberg made this observation in an editor’s note, titled “A Warning,”published on Monday to launch The Atlantic’s January/February 2024 special edition devoted to a chilling theme: “If Trump Wins.”

RELATED STORY: From Capone to dictatorship: Trump’s troubling interview with Hannity

From Goldberg’s “Warning”:

And so here we are. It is not a sure thing that Trump will win the Republican nomination again, but as I write this, he’s the prohibitive front-runner. Which is why we felt it necessary to share with our readers our collective understanding of what could take place in a second Trump term.

[…]

The country survived the first Trump term, though not without sustaining serious damage. A second term, if there is one, will be much worse.

Goldberg emphasized that The Atlantic, since its founding in 1857, is “deliberately not a partisan magazine.” He concluded:

Our concern with Trump is not that he is a Republican, or that he embraces—when convenient—certain conservative ideas. We believe that a democracy needs, among other things, a strong liberal party and a strong conservative party in order to flourish. Our concern is that the Republican Party has mortgaged itself to an antidemocratic demagogue, one who is completely devoid of decency.

The issue offers the most in-depth and detailed analysis to date of the dangers threatening us if the twice-impeached, four-time-indicted Trump returns to the Oval Office with essays by 24 Atlantic contributors.

In an introductory overview, “What Trump’s Second Term Could Look Like,” Tom Nichols, a Never Trump conservative, wrote:

Trump’s autocratic instincts have now fully mutated into an embrace of fascism. And yet, America shrugs: Millions of voters think of the upcoming election as just another contest between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat, instead of an existential contest between democracy and authoritarianism.

[…]

We describe the threats that a second Trump term would pose to the United States government, the country’s institutions, U.S. national security, and the American idea itself.

The Atlantic is clearly not trying to persuade MAGA cultists who are unlikely to read the essays or believe them if they did. But the special issue is intended for the rest of us: people concerned about climate change; women and pregnant people upset about the loss of abortion rights and misogyny; people of color and queer folks worried about threats to civil rights; and anyone who supports a strong NATO alliance to back Ukraine and deter further aggression by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

Goldberg told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I want people to be able to hand this issue to people … who are still unsure about the nature of Trump’s authoritarianism.”

Tapper noted that “it is not difficult for newsrooms to state they are pro-democracy, but the conundrum they face is that, in this dark time in which we find ourselves, staking out a vocal pro-democracy stance effectively means being anti-Trump. And most news organizations are not comfortable in that territory, given it could be perceived as partisan and turn away audiences.”

But Goldberg responded that he was “comfortable devoting an entire issue of answering the question of what a second Trump term would look like and reaching the conclusion that it would be … absolutely terrible.”

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He added that self-censorship is not the solution. “At a certain point, you can’t convince people of reality.” Goldberg added:

All we can do is try to present fairly and completely our fact-checked views of Trump and Trumpism and hope that people read it and understand that we are trying to be truthful with our readers and truthful with ourselves and transparent. And if some voters in America can’t handle that, then they can’t handle that. There’s not much I can do about it.

In August, The Atlantic gained a major new platform when Goldberg was named the new moderator of PBS’ “Washington Week,” the nation’s longest-running news and public affairs program on prime-time television. The show has been renamed “Washington Week with The Atlantic.”

The Atlantic’s anti-Trump issue clearly struck a raw nerve with the Trump campaign, however, which dismissed it in a statement to The Hill.

“This is nothing more than another version of the media’s failed and false Russia collusion hoax,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. “The Atlantic will be out of business soon because nobody will read that trash.”

As expected, that’s just more misinformation from the Trump campaign. In August 2021, The Atlantic reported that its total print and digital subscriptions rose to more than 830,000—the highest circulation that The Atlantic has achieved in its long history.

And Donald Trump Jr., in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, had the audacity to write, “The Atlantic and other fake news frauds are calling my father a dictator and trying to normalize violence against him and the MAGA base.”

Fox News’ website dismissed The Atlantic’s special edition and recent coverage in other major news outlets as “media panic” over a second Trump term. The Fox News show “The Bottom Line” ran a chyron reading, “Lib media loses it over possible Trump victory.” Right-wing comedian Tom Shillue said, “This thing in The Atlantic, was I supposed to read the whole thing. … But they tried to play that he (Trump) is big and scary and he’s going to start wars. Are you kidding me? We know that he doesn’t like to start wars.”

Goldberg is pulling out all the stops to make sure that the Trump issue launch is not a one-day wonder. While the print edition is already available on newsstands and to subscribers, the magazine’s website so far has posted about half of the 24 essays without a paywall, with plans to gradually post the rest by Christmas.

Goldberg and other Atlantic contributors have been making the rounds since the launch. In an interview Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Goldberg said, ”With any luck at Christmas maybe people could read it and bring it to their relatives who are on the fence and say, ‘Look, here’s what’s going to happen. Do you want this or do you not want this?’ That’s very simple.” 

The Atlantic essays do in fact cover a wide array of subject matter. David Frum writes on the danger of autocracy, noting that if Donald Trump returns to the White House, he’d bring a better understanding of the system’s vulnerabilities, more willing enablers, and a more focused agenda of retaliation against his adversaries. Barton Gellman tackles the Justice Department, asserting that if reelected, Trump could use the powers of the presidency to evade justice and punish his enemies. Franklin Foer expounds on corruption and how Donald Trump and his cronies left his first administration with a playbook for self-enrichment in a second term.

McKay Coppins writes about Trump’s loyalists, lapdogs, and cronies, flagging that in a second Trump term, there would be no adults in the room. Caitlin Dickerson, explaining immigration and the specter of family separation, reminds us that Trump and his allies have promised to restore their draconian zero-tolerance immigration policy. Anne Applebaum, in an essay about how Trump will abandon NATO, says that if reelected, he would end our commitment to the European alliance, reshaping the international order and hobbling American influence in the world.

Additionally, Zoe Schlanger writes on how the climate cannot afford another Trump presidency because he will simply ignore the environment. George Packer, writing on journalism, reminds us the press has repeatedly fallen into Trump’s traps. A second term could render the media irrelevant. Sarah Zhang, explaining the politicization of science, feels that Trump would continue to attack studies that stand in the way of his agenda—and to make support for scientific inquiry a tribal belief. And Adam Serwer, writing on a MAGA judiciary, knows that in a second term, Trump would appoint more judges who don’t care about the law.

Nichols concluded his introductory overview by writing:

This special issue, I think, can help counteract the kind of complacency—or fatalism—that comes when trying to think about threats of this magnitude. It deserves careful reading and sharing with friends and family who might, by this point, have become numbed by the incessant torrent of awfulness to which Trump has accustomed too many of us.nich

As Jeffrey Goldberg noted (Monday) on Morning Joe, this edition is a considered exploration of what the magazine’s writers think is very likely to happen if Trump wins, and we need to ask one another: Is this what you really want?

Upcoming essays, according to Nichols, will cover such topics as hard-line efforts to further restrict abortion, increasing attacks on racial and sexual minorities, the dangers to civil rights, and how Trump would try to use gender issues to stoke an ongoing moral panic. They will also explain how Trump would not hesitate to use the power of the federal government to impose red-state priorities on cities and states that do not support him, in effect conducting a war against blue America that could be the greatest threat to national unity since the Civil War.

With 2024 just weeks away and less than a year till we cast our ballots, Goldberg and Nichols are absolutely asking the right question: Is this what any of us really want? The next question, of course: What will each of us do to stop a second Trump presidency from becoming a reality?

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