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.