The Jaundiced Eyeball

Media Abets Trump’s Shock-Jock Statesmanship

Chris LehmannDecember 09, 2015
Trump: undeniably powerful optics. Gage Skidmore

Trump: undeniably powerful optics. / Gage Skidmore

There was something more than a little disingenuous about the late news cycle’s clamor over Donald Trump’s demagogic, crypto-fascist call to ban Muslims from entry into the United States. 

It’s not that Trump’s announcement wasn’t newsworthy, shocking, and terrifying—it was all those things, in spades. Rather, the tenor of the coverage made it seem, as it usually does in Trump’s case, that Trump’s Hitleresque scheme struck the astonished American civitas as a bolt from the blue, a paroxysm of ugly nativist bigotry from a fringe demagogue. The guardians of respectable opinion have promptly echoed newly installed House Speaker Paul Ryan’s declaration that Trump’s proposal was not “who we are as a party.” (Though opportunist bottom-feeder Ted Cruz, who’s positioned himself to acquire Trump’s robust base of aggrieved non-college-educated white voters in the unlikely event of a Trump implosion, and desperate attention whore Rand Paul each responded to Trump’s announcement with press releases championing the legislative strides they’ve made along the same xenophobic path.) Even Bush-era torturers and enemies of the Constitution like Dick Cheney and John Yoo proclaimed that Trump’s discriminatory proposal crossed a bright line of authoritarian bigotry that could not be countenanced in a prospective major-party presidential nominee. (One supposes that if anyone can claim expertise in ugly and brutal defilements of the American ideal, Yoo and Cheney would lead the pack.)

To begin with the obvious point: what Donald Trump is saying clearly is in line with the sentiments of a majority of GOP primary voters, so it is nonsense to declaim that it is not who the Republican party is. Indeed, the billionaire cretin is now leading the GOP field by a wider margin than ever—this after a six-month Guignol of ethnic, sexual, and racial bigotry, targeting everyone from Mexican immigrants to Chinese exporters to Syrian immigrants to black Americans menaced by cops to disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, together with pretty much any TV journalist daring to question him while in possession of a vagina.

For any reasonably responsible media concern, Trump’s well established record as a race baiter would be cause for aggressive candidate vetting.

What’s more, the steady drift of Trumpism into digital-age fascism has been actively abetted by the same media now conspicuously wringing its hands over Trump’s excesses. This is a candidate, after all, who candidly avers in his campaign book (which bears the revealingly self-deconstructing title Crippled America) that he deliberately courts outrage in the media as a business model. “Sometimes I make outrageous comments and give them what they want—viewers and readers—in order to make a point. I’m a businessman with a brand to sell.” After all, “the cost of a full-page ad in the New York Times is $100,000. But when they write a story about one of my deals, it doesn’t cost me a cent, and I get more important publicity.”

What’s permitted Trump to cultivate this shock-jock vision of statesmanship is the media’s own self-defeating—dare one say crippling?—posture of instant deference to demagogic grandstanding as a profit center in its own right. After all, contrary to the impressions ginned up by hyperventilating cable anchors, nothing in Trump’s long career as plutocratic clown prince of the airwaves has indicated that he would be anything other than a jackboots-and-power-tie avatar of white resentment. He had laid into the innocent and exonerated defendants in the Central Park Five rape case with the racist gusto of a George Wallace or Pitchfork Ben Tillman, taking out full-page ads in New York’s four major newspapers at the height of the furor over the case in 1989 (this was back when the real-estate scion was still paying for his media exposure), to denounce the cop-bullied, coerced teenage defendants as “marauders” who deserved the death penalty. Even after their convictions were vacated and the city of New York paid out a $41 million wrongful conviction settlement, Trump continued to imply they were guilty, and that they had been “wilding” through Manhattan the night of the rape (itself a media-generated racist meme of the era that’s been roundly discredited).

Likewise, Trump’s entire reinvention as a populist prophet of the right hinged on his cynical and racist embrace of birtherism—the notion that Barack Obama had to have been born outside the United States, on no other grounds than his mixed-race lineage. This had been Trump’s calling card as celebrity upstager of successive Conservative Political Action Conferences—occasions where he’d also vaguely float the notion of a presidential run before retiring to his usual ego rampages in gilded casinos and on the reality-TV circuit.

For any reasonably responsible media concern, Trump’s well established record as a race baiter would be cause for aggressive candidate vetting—that frequently invoked but erratically practiced mandate for a civic-minded press. But as Trump’s decade-plus run with NBC has shown, his penchant for the outlandish is ratings gold, on the entertainment side of the business—and especially for the otherwise dreary and revenue-challenged conduct of political coverage. So what passes for candidate vetting in Trump’s case is the very sort of personalized set-to that the East Side Fauntleroy long ago figured out how to win: a war over an outrageously unsubstantiated statement that permits him to claim misunderstood-victim status, and then to lay into his interlocutor with yet more outrageously unsubstantiated statements. See, among countless examples, his late-summer post-debate feud with Megyn Kelly and his manic-depressive string of announcements of pending “boycotts” of Fox News. Tellingly, Kelly later explained that the network didn’t want to be seen pursuing a “war” with the candidate: “Neither one of us [i.e., Kelly or the Fox corporation, interchangeable entities in this context] wanted any sort of war with Donald Trump. We didn’t think that benefitted the channel, we didn’t think it benefitted me and we don’t think it benefitted Donald Trump, and I think Donald Trump would say that now.”

The notion of why a news reporter should give a shit about what benefitted Donald Trump, and what Trump would have to say about said benefits now didn’t merit any further questioning. (Kelly was appearing on Charlie Rose, after all, which is merely the PBS-branded version of the same witless deference to power on regular display on the cable politics dial.) That’s largely because we’ve long since passed the point where our media interlocutors have given much of a shit about the truth in the first place. 

Just behold the spectacle of CNN political analyst Gloria Borger crisply summing up Trump’s appeal as a function of widespread fear of a pending terrorist attack and petulant disappointment with the incumbent president for telling them the palpable truth that suicidal adherents of violent apocalyptic cults aren’t easily defeated—and then primly act as though the mayhem-purveying network that employs her has nothing to do with either reality-challenged storyline. Trump’s shameless pandering to the worst bigoted fears of the electorate is “pure bombast,” this Beltway know-it-all airily declaims, before noting, with no small amount of grudging admiration, that “he’ll probably get a bump in the polls out of it.” It’s as though a short-term uptick in primary support were all that was at stake in a bid to exclude an entire cohort of people from the country exclusively on the basis of their religious beliefs. 

Alas, I have firsthand experience in this area. Back when I was a news editor for a certain lumbering purple Internet brand, we were charged with covering the White House’s release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate—the crowning rebuke to conspiratorial birthers of the Trump ilk. My company managers on the West Coast wanted my news team to play the story as a typical two-sided political flap: Team A says X; Team B says Y; we report, you decide. Only in this instance of course, Team B was made up of racist liars and certifiable nutcases, and it was a dereliction of simple empirical duty to act as though they any longer had any sort of case to make. So I told my Santa Monica overseers that we were going to publish a piece about what the birther debate actually revealed—a deep-seated racist animus among Obama’s most virulent opponents. Much to my relief and gratification, we did run that piece, and it commanded a great deal of traffic. But I also know that piece was very much an outlier, and the overwhelming number of news outlets covering the birth certificate’s release duly obeyed the nonsensical, truth-averse mandate to cover the birther “side” of the debate.

And that, in a grimly instructive nutshell, is why Donald Trump has been able to work the political press like a sad-sack corps of Apprentice contestants as he campaigns on an openly fascist platform to register and expel America’s Mexican-born and Muslim populations. Even at this late date, the oafish chroniclers of the presidential horse race, rather than calling Trump out as a liar, a demagogue, and a racist, are marveling at the man’s political savvy. “Whatever happens, this is an historic day in the history of the @realDonaldTrump campaign,” Game Change co-author and moral imbecile Mark Halperin redundantly belched into his Twitter feed after Trump’s anti-Muslim announcement. How, one wonders, would a pundit like Halperin have covered the Reichstag fire—“a risky gambit for the German Republic, but undeniably a big win for Hitler”? It matters little, of course: Halperin, a seven-figure correspondent for Bloomberg, was just awarded his own MSNBC time slot for his Bloomberg-produced political chat show. It’s not just Donald Trump, Gloria Borger, and Megyn Kelly, in short: Moral abdication in today’s mediasphere is just good business sense.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.