That’s Why We Do This

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a news conference before a scheduled campaign rally, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Worcester, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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At TPM our coverage of politics has always tended toward the bizarre and outrageous in American politics, what we in-house sometimes call ‘The Crazy’. Some of this is just a product of my interests and obsessions about contemporary politics and American history, ones that shaped how I built the organization and people I hired who in term helped define what we do. But this is only part of it and not that part which I think is important. We cover the weird, dark, outrageous and surreal in our politics because these things are much more important than most people – especially most political observers – care to admit. I thought of this when I read this high-minded and starchy editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post, the upshot of which is that while they’ve tried to do the right thing and ignore Donald Trump’s clown car campaign, they simply can’t do it anymore. The time has now come to stand up to Trump’s bullying! And, the Post insists, Republicans must now do so too.

Here’s an extended quote from the editorial …

THE GROWING ugliness of Donald Trump’s campaign poses a challenge to us all. We have seen the likes of him before, in the United States and elsewhere: narcissistic bullies who rise to prominence by spreading lies, appealing to fears and stoking hatred. Such people are dangerous.

Like many Americans, our first inclination was to ignore Mr. Trump. The Huffington Post, you may recall, announced that it would feature him in its Entertainment section, not in its coverage of politics. He was a buffoon, a disseminator of ludicrous rumors about President Obama’s birthplace. He lacked the qualifications, experience or knowledge to be president. He was running to promote his brand. We wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

Our assessment of Mr. Trump was correct, but the tactical response was not. His popular support has hung steady at about 30 percent of Republicans, and his candidacy has tugged the debate toward divisiveness as his bigotry has drawn cheers and many of his rivals have strove to mimic him.

This encapsulates pretty much entirely the myopia of so much American political journalism. Sometimes readers will write in to say ‘Why are you writing so much about Trump?’ or Steve King or Michele Bachmann or Death Panels or whatever the latest thing is. ‘You’ve just given them oxygen. If people ignored them, they’d go away.’

Now this doesn’t make a lot of sense at one level since TPM’s a pretty small outfit. But it doesn’t make sense on a larger level either. A lot of people, a lot of liberals, or what we might better call people of cosmopolitan political sensibilities, live in this fantasy world wherein what they ignore either doesn’t exist or will be shooed out of existence by their refusal to pay attention to it. This is, needless to say, not true. That’s why many Democrats are continually surprised that things they think are straightforward or commonsensical turn out to be deeply controversial or even politically impossible. Or conversely, why so many preposterous claims are widely accepted as either possible or true. Why do so many people think the President is a Muslim? Why do so many people believe there are Obama death panels? Why do so many Republican voters believe that Democrats only win elections because white Democrats organize legions of black voters who vote multiple times in our densely populated inner cities. Pick whatever ludicrous claim or idea that turns out to have remarkable traction in the US political dialog and if you’re surprised about it it’s probably because there’s a whole underside of American politics you’re simply not tuned into or think it’s beneath you to take note of. And if you’re part of the elite tier of American journalism you are almost certainly part of this equation – albeit more as a matter or writing much of this out of the story than not knowing it exists.

Our main reaction when Huffpo made its grand and grandiose pronouncement about relegating Trump to the Entertainment pages (note that the politics reporters kept covering him) was not only that this was quite a thing to say for a publication that put accidentally exposed nipples at the center of the national news conversation. But really, it’s hard for me to imagine a wilder sort of journalistic arrogance. The job of political journalism isn’t to police what’s acceptable or legitimate in our politics but first always to capture what is happening. This isn’t to say we can’t editorialize and make judgments. As a whole, journalists should probably be doing more of both. But what’s actually happening always comes first. The idea that we can or should simply write things or people out of the story amounts to a comical level of hubris.

Trump hardly comes out of nowhere. There’s really little about his ascent that is surprising at all if you’ve been paying attention to the direction of our politics in the last decade. I don’t mean that I would have predicted he’d do this well. I didn’t. What I mean is that the nature of his success, the effectiveness of his strategy and message, is entirely predictable. What Trump has done is taken the half-subterranean Republican script of the Obama years, turbocharge it and add a level of media savvy that Trump gained not only from The Apprentice but more from decades navigating and exploiting New York City’s rich tabloid news culture. He’s just taken the existing script, wrung out the wrinkles and internal contradictions and given it its full voice. There’s very, very little that is new or unfamiliar in Trump’s campaign beside taking the world of talk radio, conservative media and base Republican hijinx and pushing them to the center of the national political conversation. If you’re surprised, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention.

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