Monthly Archives: July 2016


OK, here comes the Trump coronation.

The only satisfaction I can take from this week’s Republican convention is that the media are even unhappier than the Republican establishment.  Although why that should be the case is inexplicable, because he’s exactly the kind of candidate the media has been clamoring for.

For as long as I can remember, reporters and commentators (assuming there’s a difference) have been complaining about the plastic Ken and Barbie dolls who have been running for public office.  Two years ago, if you’d asked them to design the perfect presidential candidate, it would have been something like this:

  • Someone who says whatever’s on his mind, regardless of the consequences.
  • A non-politician who doesn’t use talking points, teleprompters, and canned stump speeches.
  • Someone who doesn’t use a pollster to “nuance” his positions.
  • A candidate who is not indebted to PACs and special interests.
  • A media-savvy communicator who will go on any talk show, talk to any reporter, answer any question, and hold plenty of press conferences.
  • A candidate who increases voter turnout among people who rarely go to the polls.
  • A near-atheist who can expose the religious right as hypocrites.
  • A populist who can make Fox News bend to his will, not the other way around.

Trump is all this and more, and the media is appalled that these ingredients didn’t combine to produce a left-leaning truth-teller like Bulworth. What a surprise.

Now that I’ve gone through all the stages of grief, I no longer blame the media solely for the rise of Trump.  Yes, I think it was unfair that the cable news channels would interrupt regular programming to show his speeches, or that the Sunday talk shows would invite him on week after week (and even let him call in).  But in retrospect, I am sympathetic to the situation news producers were in.  Trump generated big ratings for them because he was constantly making news, or at least making controversy.  The other candidates were either too cautious or too unimaginative to make news on a daily basis.

It’s probable that Trump would have received the nomination even if the media hadn’t put their thumbs on the scale.

There’s a body of thought that the media did a poor job of exposing Trump’s negatives.  That’s ridiculous. The kind of things that would have sunk a normal candidate in a normal year – the verbal screw-ups, the bankruptcies, the apostasies from conservative dogma, the use of illegal labor at his construction sites, the lack of religious conviction, the shenanigans at Trump University – were well-documented by the press and thrown at him in debate after debate.

Part of the problem is that the people who support Trump simply don’t believe the media and haven’t really believed them since the 1960s.  They suspect that the people who run the mainstream newsrooms look down on them and advocate for a kind of diversity that includes everyone else but them.  So these folks are apt to discount negative stories about Trump.

Media watchdogs have also taken the media to task for not doing more “fact-checking” on Trump’s proposals.  Also ridiculous.  There’s been plenty of coverage about his proposals – many of which are considered “gaffes.”  Further, there’s nothing that sticks in the craw of a conservative quite as much as the media appointing itself he arbiter of what’s correct and what’s incorrect in a candidate’s speech or debate performance.  Until left-leaning candidates receive the same level of scrutiny, it’s unlikely than any deep review of any candidate’s positions by the media will be taken seriously by  the right.

More to the point, this is a year when the actual positions taken by the candidates are considered performance art more than actual attainable goals.  I’ve listened, mouth agape, as Trump supporters admit that no, they don’t think a wall is really plausible, and no, they don’t really want to ban all Muslims from the United States.

But the same is true with Sanders supporters too. How many of them truly believe that free college is possible?  And while we’re at it, who seriously believes that Hillary Clinton is against the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

So while the media (and most of those hapless GOP contenders) thought this election was about policy positions, it’s really been about identity and grievance.  Trump’s consequence-free ability to abandon Republican orthodoxies shows that most people don’t care what legislation you propose — as long as you seem to be on their “side.”

Looked at it this way, Trump’s “gaffes” turned out to be part of his appeal. When the media thought they were driving a stake through his heart by reporting them so breathlessly, they were actually building him up as the anti-establishment candidate.

The media won’t be the ones to stop Trump.  That will be up the voters now.  If the media really want to stop Trump, the best thing they can do is to deliver the news straight, get off the ratings gravy train, and not treat Trump supporters as yahoos.  That shouldn’t be asking too much.


Modern Family House

Television has been widely blamed — rightly, in my opinion — first, for making the Trump nomination possible and then for making it inevitable.  Starting with “The Apprentice,” TV made Donald Trump a household name, and then, through wall-to-wall coverage during the primaries, it gave him so much attention that the other candidates suffocated from a lack of media oxygen.

But I think there’s another way that television has made Trumpism popular: by (inadvertently) stoking the flames of class resentment.

Let’s recall that the initial vessel of this round of voter anger, the Tea Party, was originally propelled by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s rant against a government bailout of homeowners who had bought houses they couldn’t afford, at the expense of sober-minded homeowners who were living within their means.  In other words, the Tea Party began as a protest by middle-class homeowners against upper-middle-class homeowners.

Tea Party resentment blossomed from the wreckage of the financial collapse and Great Recession.  What’s less clear is why there is so much anger today, at a time of relatively low unemployment and steady (albeit sluggish) economic growth.  Despite the good news consistently trumpeted by the Obama administration, a Marketplace-Edison Research poll found that 63% of Americans feel anxious about their finances, while 43% feel stuck in their financial situation.  That’s a recipe for a disrupter like Trump.

The Occupy movement’s explanation for voter discontent is that the economic gains of the past seven years have gone only to the top one-percent of the population.  But all you have to do is look around to see that it’s more than the top one-percent who are doing pretty well in this economy.  Indeed, as the economist Stephen Ross has wondered, why does a luxury brand like Mercedes-Benz advertise on a mass medium like television when there are more targeted ways to reach the wealthy?

Well, it turns out that the social group with the biggest economic gains in the past few years has been the upper-middle class: i.e., families making between $100,000 and $350,000 a year.  And if you’ve got a nice-size 401K, you’re feeling pretty comfortable about the stock market’s performance these fast seven years. The reason Mercedes advertises on TV is because there’s a large and growing group of Americans who can aspire to a luxury lifestyle.

And it’s exactly that group, the upper middle class, that is over-represented on television.  Among the top-rated series, a disproportionate number feature well-dressed characters living in beautiful houses who are definitely not living paycheck to paycheck and who probably have one of those fat 401ks.  For starters, I’m thinking of “Empire,” “Scandal,” “Modern Family,” “The Good Wife,” “black*ish,” and “Madam Secretary.”

Not all shows are about the upper middle class, of course. But many of the most popular shows that don’t highlight this groups (“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Walking Dead,” “NCIS,” “Scorpion,” and “The Mentalist”) are essentially class-free.  It’s a rare series like the now-cancelled “Mike and Molly” that is clearly set in a working-class environment.

Now this is the point where we leave data-based analysis and enter the realm of conjecture.  I can’t point to any specific studies linking TV viewing and class resentment, but I have to wonder how people who are struggling financially feel when faced with a steady barrage of television shows about people who are, effortlessly, living much better than they are.

America has never had a strong class consciousness, nor have Americans traditionally resented depictions of the rich.  Even during the Depression, one of the most popular film genres was the screwball comedy, with its focus on the antics of rich socialites and playboys.

Still, there must be some impact when the majority of the population doesn’t see their lives represented in popular culture.  Inevitably families who are treading water are going to think they’re worse off and more insecure than they really are if everyone else seems richer, happier and more secure.

And what is the impact of all those commercials (for luxury cars, wealth management advisers, high-end computer equipment, top-shelf liquors, stock-trading services, etc.) that many middle- or working-class families can’t afford?  Couldn’t this contribute to resentment and anger?

Television used to be the most democratic of art forms, representing a wide array of social classes.  It’s ironic that as the TV screen has become more diverse in terms of gender, race, and sexuality categories, it became significantly less diverse on class issues.  The white working and middle classes, which used to be so well-represented on TV are now largely invisible.

And who are Trump’s strongest supporters? Those very same white working- and middle-class voters.  A coincidence?  Maybe, maybe not.