The Mainstream Media Has a Donald J. Trump-Sized Blind Spot
A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook went on national television and declared: “There are real questions being raised about whether Donald Trump himself is just a puppet for the Kremlin in this race.”
For all the talk over the past 14 months about how Trump has obliterated the supposed “norms” that typically govern the operation of presidential campaigns, this was a norm-buster for the ages. “Puppet for the Kremlin”? That’s the stuff of a dystopian espionage thriller. If true, it’d constitute a scenario utterly without precedent in American history, potentially shaking the very foundations of the Republic. One might think, then, that Mook’s stunning attack would’ve engendered a wave of calls from sober-minded pundits for due diligence and avoidance of hyperbole.
It’s worth considering why.
The total paucity of avowed Trump supporters in elite spheres—including prestige media outlets, think tanks and academic institutions—has created an unprecedented imbalance in our electoral politics. During any given week this summer, commentators might have charged Trump with committing treason (a crime punishable by death), seeking to carry out mass genocide, being clinically insane, or chomping at the bit to instigate civilization-destroying nuclear war—not to mention secretly working to undermine the entire American system of government at the behest of Russia’s dastardly leader. Such extreme besmirchments have become so common now that they seldom even raise an eyebrow.
Of course, given his penchant for inflammatory blather, Trump himself bears plenty of responsibility for provoking some histrionic name-calling. But even so, when a presidential candidate nominated by one of the two major parties can be called a literal traitor and virtually nobody within the domains that traditionally regulate mainstream public discourse feels compelled to come out and object—something’s off.
Something intrinsic to the fundamental order of the polity is fraying, and it threatens the continued existence of a functioning, governable nation state.
Elite journalists, usually quick to condemn politicians or celebrities for failing to evince sufficient self-awareness, appear to have lost any notion that they too are obliged to maintain a sense of perspective. Roughly 0% of political reporters and commentators with sizable platforms at reputable publications favor Trump, who’s two months away from garnering the votes of at least 50 million American citizens. (That said, I have heard from several journalists at progressive media outlets who privately favor Trump, so maybe the figure is closer to 1%.)
A more self-aware media would be highly cognizant of the inevitable distortions created by this Trump-sized blind spot. If no one in your social and professional cohort feels even a pang of doubt when a presidential candidate is accused by his rival campaign of treason—a high crime for which, it should be again emphasized, the United States penal code explicitly prescribes death—then your cohort has fallen perilously out of touch with the sentiments of the broader population. And if your business model depends on maintaining the trust of readers, this should be seen as doubly worrying.
But far from acknowledging the blind spot and trying to compensate for it, every day brings a new wave of mindless Trump hysterics. Nobody would argue that the candidate’s statements should go unscrutinized—that’s a red herring. But to hang on his every trifling word as if the fate of humanity depends on it is going way, way overboard. It generates such a tiresome cacophony of noise that many voters, especially casual news consumers largely indifferent to politics, simply tune out.
I can’t tell you how many ordinary folks I’ve spoken with who don’t trust that the rolling Trump outrage machine otherwise known as current mainstream media is giving them the real story. This includes people who generally dislike Trump. One representative example was a restaurant worker in Philadelphia during the Democratic Convention in July who told me that she assumes anything Trump says or does will instantly be blown out of proportion, so has decided to just ignore the coverage. For her, it’s a rational reaction to such disproportionate, all-consuming furor: She says she cannot process it all and also retain her sanity. So even if a controversy arises that is legitimately worth getting up-in-arms about, she will no longer know it.
Some non-trivial percentage of folks like this woman—who happened to label Trump an “ass” —will probably end up casting a vote for him anyway, if only out of pure anti-media spite.
A lot of that spite comes in response to the incessant, never-ending fixation on Trump’s rhetoric at the expense of any other facet of his candidacy—or indeed, at the expense of adequately scrutinizing Hillary Clinton (who after all is ahead in the polls by a substantial margin). This frenzy has led to what Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist rightly terms a kind of stubborn “hyper-literalism,” where every last Trump quip, joke, or off-color remark is assigned world-historic importance. Thus, you get absurd situations like so-called media “fact-checkers” —the self-appointed guardians of empirical truth—proclaiming (to paraphrase): “Actually, Abu-Bakhar al-Baghdadi is the leader of ISIS, not Barack Obama.” Come on!
Did anyone in their right mind think that Trump meant to communicate as a matter of literal fact that Barack Obama is the formal leader of ISIS? No. But the fact-checkers pretended otherwise, for reasons that remain inscrutable to the naked eye.
The same thing happened when Trump “challenged Obama to a golf game for the presidency.” Common sense would have told any normal person that this was a clear joke, but of course stuck-up journalists related it as a serious decree. The sudden, bizarre unwillingness by writers to tolerate figurative language only widens their remove from average joes and janes. It is a willful refusal to understand how regular people talk with friends and family in everyday conversation.
Over-reliance on hyper-literalism bears on another problem the elite press apparently has no interest in addressing: Because their cohort lacks anyone who sympathizes whatsoever with Trump, the least charitable interpretation of everything he spouts gets the maximum amount of play. Subsequently, there is never any opportunity for concerted pushback against the more outlandish allegations against him—such as Mook’s recent “Manchurian Candidate” attack—because nobody who’s mindful of their career security wants to give anything like the impression of going easy on a purported racist, fascist, treasonous demagogue. That’s too much of a PR liability.
In a sense, the daily deluge of unremediated Trump mayhem resembles the bygone Brexit debate in the U.K. Although easy “Brexit portends Trump!” parallels can be over-simplistic, there are correspondent dynamics worth considering. The London-based media elite were near-unanimous in their support for remaining in the European Union, and united in their disgust at the forces trying to facilitate Brexit. The big contrast with the stateside Trump predicament, however, is that at least a sliver of prestigious conservative UK outlets (such as The Spectator magazine) did back the Leave side—so there was some level of elite pushback to overheated and/or exaggerated anti-Brexit commentary. But in the case of Trump, not even conservative media elites back him (i.e. National Review, Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, Weekly Standard), so there is virtually no elite-level pushback at all when insane anti-Trump criticisms are leveled. (Fox News and other roughly “populist” conservative outfits such as Breitbart, which obviously support Trump, are another matter—they do not qualify as “prestige” outlets.)
Ironically enough, it’s fallen in large part to the left to object when Trump-bashing goes off the rails, as Jamie Kirchick recently documented in The Daily Beast.
We therefore face a scenario that, with isolated exceptions, ensures a daily whirlwind of pundits across the ideological spectrum screaming their indignation at one another with no expectation that anybody outside of the Trump campaign apparatus will respond on his behalf, if only for fear of incurring reputational harm; questioning certain unhinged anti-Trump sentiments inevitably invites accusations of “supporting Trump,” even if one has repeatedly, explicitly declared their opposition to Trump (as I can tell you first-hand.) That’s not a healthy situation.
For an illustrative parallel, it’s worth recalling the infamous “47 percent” remark uttered by Mitt Romney four years ago, and what exactly made that episode so incendiary at the time. Over the course of the 2012 campaign, Romney comported himself as a ruthlessly staid and polished politician who rarely said anything remotely interesting. An unexpectedly revealing statement from Romney would have been something along the lines of, “Gee, this small business sure is wonderful.” So when a secretly-recorded clip leaked of him ranting to rich donors about how morally stained 47 percent of the electorate was for collecting government handouts, it became a big story because it was reflective of a view that he presumably held in private but hadn’t publicly expressed. After his campaign ended in ignominious defeat, Romney more-or-less repeated the “47%” slur on a conference call with high-rolling supporters, confirming both the newsworthiness of the original leak and the propriety of media treating it at the time like a significant revelation. (And Romney, having the backing of elite movement conservative media organs, was the beneficiary of a concerted pushback effort to downplay the offensiveness of his original remarks—something Trump would never receive.)
With Trump, the dynamic is totally different. Every single day he’s bound to say something intemperate or eye-popping, so the salience of any one given remark is vastly diminished. There appears to be little that Trump would blurt out privately but not publicly; if anything it’s the inverse, because by all accounts Trump is more reserved in private encounters than in public settings. Nonetheless, media doomsayers still latch feverishly onto his every irreverent comment, and conservative elites have no appetite to offer pushback or rationalizations. Because the average news consumer has a finite supply of umbrage, she eventually becomes numb to the endless meltdown coverage of Trump’s antics. And she will likely be wary that the media feeding her perpetual outrage is portraying Trump’s statements in a fair-minded manner.
This all comes to a head with narratives surrounding the now-notorious Trump rallies. Those who have never attended a rally but absorb a certain flavor of reportage see them as frightening, rage-filled affairs with a darkly fascistic bent. Partly because the journalists on scene are so culturally removed from attendees and hostile to their interests, there’s every incentive to cast rally-goers in the least charitable possible light. Fishing out examples of the most ridiculous-seeming Trump devotees will always earn accolades and retweets from media colleagues.
Please note, this is in no way to deny that ugly and often racist sentiments can be seen coursing through Trump gatherings. That’s obvious.
But a recent rally I attended in Fairfield, Connecticut, painted a far more nuanced picture for anyone who was inclined to see it. Most conspicuously, there was little sign of the doom, rage, and economic anxiety that supposedly animates Trump’s supporters. The most frequently-emitted noise in the auditorium was not boos, cheers or chants, but laughter. Everybody was cracking up, over and over again. Folks were enjoying themselves immensely. One man, explaining why he supports Trump, told me: “For the taxes I pay, I want some comic relief.”
That’s Trump’s hidden strength (or at least one that’s out of sight to most culturally-rarefied journalists): there’s a comedic genius about him. Given his other unsavory features, it’s become gauche to acknowledge this. Yes, I realize that Trump-branded humor may resonate disproportionately with members of certain societal strata, while not at all with others—but among the receptive strata, it’s an extraordinarily potent political weapon.
This is all to say that popular discussions of the pathologies of “Trump supporters” have become trite and boring. “Those people” are always depicted through the same phony anthropological prism, as if pundits are examining some inexplicable phenomenon that just suddenly became evident in the material universe. Trump supporters exist in all walks of life and in every region of the country, but they’ve somehow become these exotic creatures to be analyzed in a pseudo-journalistic lab. On the other hand, supporting Hillary is seen as the height of normalcy, requiring no further interrogation.
It would be equally possible to scrutinize the prototypical Hillary voter as some kind of baffling curiosity—plenty of loopy people support her for a variety of weird and off-putting reasons. I recall attending a Hillary rally during the Democratic primaries several months back where a number of her fans were propagating preposterous conspiracy theories about Bernie Sanders, on topics ranging from his alleged ties to communist radicals to his “illegitimately” begotten son. I could have weaved these anecdotes into a larger narrative about how Hillary voters were motivated to back her out of “anger,” “resentment,” and “anxiety.” But I didn’t, because my sense of fairness militated against the impulse.
If members of the elite media do not take heed, re-evaluate, and regain a sense of fairness, Trump will mark just the beginning of a long, potentially irreversible American descent into madness and decay.