Fortuna + the Media -> Trumpenstein*
Can an entire institution be masochistic? While Donald Trump continues his increasingly shrill attacks on the media, it continues its (presumably unintentional) efforts to legitimize him as a presidential candidate. Trump, we're told, has harnessed the anger of blue-collar Republicans voters, long neglected by the GOP establishment. He is praised (albeit grudgingly) for his success at getting free media and running a campaign on a low budget. He is hailed as the master of the news cycle. And reporters are hard at work deciphering his positions on issues.
But of course this is all nonsense. Trump doesn't have real positions on issues. He didn't snare free media, it was given to him. Overall, Trump's success has almost nothing to do with anything he has intentionally done.
The media's current Trump coverage reflects a common American misconception: that success is always earned. It's a charming notion and about as realistic as the tooth fairy. Since Trump has captured the Republican nomination, by this logic he must have done something to deserve it. Having failed to predict his nomination, reporters and commentators are now scrambling to identify what Trump did right.
In fact, Trump's success is almost entirely a matter of luck - something that our culture tends not to acknowledge (except in casinos). His success does reflect problems in our political system, the Republican Party, the Conservative movement, and the news media. But it's wrong to think that Trump understands any of this. He just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, with a very big mouth.
How has Trump been lucky? Let us count the ways.
The Republican field of presidential candidates was very large, but it was also very weak. Go through the list one by one - you won't find a single candidate who wasn't seriously flawed. Kasich wasn't conservative enough for the base and, well, pretty dull. Cruz was plenty conservative but almost universally detested. Carson was clueless. Bush was yet another Bush, something no one wanted. You can fill in the rest. In truth, Trump beat a field of losers.
In 2014, the RNC increased the number of winner take all primaries, shortening nomination process to help the front runner. And it worked. After the last contested primary, Trump had 54% of the chosen delegates but only 40% of the popular vote. Without the rule change, the convention would almost certainly have been contested.
For decades, the GOP has catered to a wide range of bigotries, making itself the home and haven for racists, the anti-immigrant set, conspiracy theorists, etc. As many people have noted, Trump is the embodiment of these world views.
While the conservative movement remains politically powerful, it is in fact intellectually bankrupt. Since the 1980s, when conservatives effectively took control of U.S. politics, nearly all of their policies have been tried, from the War on Drugs and the destruction of the social safety net to militarized foreign policy and deregulated finance. By and large, these policies have failed, and on some level, everyone knows it. But conservative leaders have nothing else to offer. Hence the disillusionment of their supporters. But for many of these people, conservatism has an almost religious status, so a shift away from the right is inconceivable. Hence the appeal of someone, anyone, who claims to be conservative but is offering something that sounds different - even if it doesn't actually make any sense. The less sense, the better, since a coherent conservative platform would just be more of same. Trump visceral conservatism, replete with the full set of biases but to real logic, is a perfect fit.
But Trump's greatest luck has been the news media, which really deserves most of the blame. Since early in the campaign, the amount of coverage Trump received has been absolutely unprecedented. He has been a top story nearly every day for months. The value of free media he received has been estimated at nearly two billion dollars (and that's just through February). (Three quarters of Americans think he has gotten too much coverage.)
And all this attention has taken nearly no effort on Trump's part. The pattern has become as predictable as it is annoying. Trump says or tweets whatever is on his mind, which is invariably offensive, outrageous, and/or nonsensical. Based on entertainment value, it get disseminated around the internet and by the evening it's a top story in all the major news sources. All Trump has to do is continue being himself, and the media does the rest.
The fact that reporters are often critical of Trump is irrelevant. Presumably Trump fans are inclined to be hostile to the news media, so the nature of the coverage isn't important. It's the quantity that matters. The enormous amount of reporting on Trump has gotten his 'message' out to far more people than he could ever have reached himself. And his constant presence in the news made him seem important long before he started getting votes.
Of course the news media needed to cover Trump, but it didn't need him so much attention. All that attention is mostly a function of the media's predilections. Trump is an easy story. No boring excursions into policy details, no 'nuanced' analysis, just an endless cycle of simple, provocative statements and the inevitable response. There is also an economic factor at play. As CBS' CEO said, the Trump coverage “... may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.
Perhaps reporters and editors are having buyers remorse, but like Dr. F, there really isn't anything they can do to get the monster they unleashed under control. Less coverage is no longer an option. Critical coverage just fans the flames. At this point, we can only hope that the villagers do the right thing and take matters into their own hands in November.
* After writing this, I discovered that Mother Jones already had an article with a Frankenstein reference to Trump ("Frankentrump"), complete with a very nice picture.
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