It’s a now a common refrain among the punditry and in public discussion that Donald Trump owes to the media his capture of the Republican nomination in the U.S. presidential race. While it may be a comforting notion, it isn’t true.
And in the same way that all sides have united in condemning Trump, all sides have adopted similar narratives about the media. Typically from the right there is a sometimes bitter lament that Trump has reached the top only because he’s baited the media into covering his every utterance, thereby allowing him to hog the public spotlight and crowd out the other contenders. From the left comes the charge that Trump has not only been given the spotlight but hasn’t been challenged by the media. And sometimes both sides use the two arguments interchangeably.
Both are wrong for the same reason: the assumption there is some veracity to the old adage that any publicity is good publicity. While it’s true that Trump has received much more “publicity” than other candidates, none of it has been good. In fact, the tone and slant of the media’s coverage of Trump has been relentlessly negative. The drumbeat of attacks has come from all sides and in all flavors.
These include the Washington Post‘s daily newsletter which has tried with an almost desperate frequency to tar Trump with whatever it can dredge up, including tenuous 25-year-old would-be scandals; the Huffington Post‘s dismayingly unprofessional and partisan move right out of the gate to confine Trump’s campaign to its entertainment pages; a sizable clique of conservative national security figures publishing an open letter denouncing Trump as a significant threat to national security; and the Financial Times, after exhausting its cache of surveys showing how horrified US business is by Trump, lowered itself to targeting him with an indignity normally reserved for female politicians: an entire column devoted to making fun of his fashion sense.
Just to put all of this in cold perspective, consider that Trump somehow managed to get on the bad side of Fox News, which is the leading American, if not global, standard bearer of conservative ideology. Trump is a man virtually without allies anywhere in the halls of official punditry, the business world (prognostications from Wall Street of market collapse or severe disruption should Trump win the presidency are nearly routine) or polite societies of any kind.
While it’s common for media outlets of differing ideological persuasions to line up against a presidential candidate on the opposing side, it’s almost certainly without precedent in the modern era that a candidate has been so thoroughly and unanimously pilloried by both sides. Trying to find positive coverage of Trump in the mainstream media is an almost hopeless exercise.
The roundly negative coverage of Trump was supposed to have resulted in his quick demise. That’s the way things normally work. A politician or other public figure opens his or her mouth, says or does something offensive, is pilloried in the media, tries to walk it back, deflect or apologize but nonetheless goes down in shamed defeat. This has been the fate of too many people to count, from businessmen Martin Shkreli and Donald Sterling to politicians Anthony Weiner and Howard Dean (for nothing more offensive than an impromptu scream). Indeed, would PR crisis management firms like Sard Verbinnen exist if sheer amount of media coverage was automatically a beneficial thing?
But normal (in every sense of the word) doesn’t apply to Trump and that certainly can’t be blamed on the media. What’s “different this time” is the willingness of a non-trivial number of Americans to get behind a “plain speaker” like Trump. This has meant that the media’s highlighting, mocking or calling out of Trump has failed to derail him as history and conventional societal mores would normally predict. Now that Trump has won the Republican nomination a major poll is showing that Republican voters want the party to unite behind him. When Trump half-joked that he could gun down someone on 5th Avenue in New York City and remain as popular as ever, he was probably speaking the truth, at least as far as Republican voters go.
So the media is neither playing Trump (any high-profile politician who said the kind of things Trump has said would get the same “man bites dog” coverage, but no one else has done so) nor being played by Trump. His rise, despite violating every known code, spoken and not, of political discourse and civil behavior, isn’t an indictment of the media, but rather one of the electorate.
At some point the media’s critics will have to admit Republican voters weren’t somehow manipulated into voting for Trump despite what he’s had to say; it’s that the electorate heard what he had to say and agreed with it. Period. The quantity of it was irrelevant.
The better question is: What has happened to the American polity that someone who claims he will build a physical wall between Mexico and the US, ban all Muslims from entering the country, and abolish the federal minimum wage among other bizarrerie, is greeted with open arms by perhaps as much as half of the voting population?
The better answer is that Trump is arguably just the logical extension of where Republican rhetoric has been headed for decades. In the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the financial crash, the Tea Party rode that same repellent rhetoric to a position of great influence without officially holding any power. Often dismissed as an extremist joke, it has now metastasized and its new form is called Donald Trump. That is where every critical eye should be looking.