Old Media and New Trump

No matter how unusual and entertaining this election has been, seventeen months of political coverage is a lot of space to fill. Even with months of relevant copy about topics usually meriting no more than a fantastical mention—contested conventions, intraparty revolts, impolitic utterances—we’re still more than two months from the conventions. In a media environment with publications and pundits in constant search of the latest popular topics, but one also prone to often breathtaking levels of groupthink, these are dangerous times indeed. And sure enough, the latest news cycles since Donald Trump’s decisive victories in a series of Northeast primaries beginning in New York last Tuesday, following on the heels of his installation of Paul Manafort as the campaign’s new head honcho, have brought out the absolute worst in television and print political journalism. The last week has brought on a preposterous amount of chatter as to whether we are witnessing a “new,” more presidential Trump. It’s a silly, discouraging endeavor. And it’s one that has revealed not a new Trump but an old media’s tired manner of covering politics.

On primary night last Tuesday, Trump gave a short, inconsequential victory speech thanking the people of New York for their overwhelming support. The speech would not have been noteworthy had we not come to expect Trump’s swaggering, bragging theatrics at every appearance. On the cable news networks, Trump’s relatively restrained address was cause for unrestrained hype and speculation. Writing the next day, the Washington Post could barely contain its mindless, naïve, narrative-enforcing pronouncements:

This was America’s introduction to the new Donald Trump, one who has undergone a rapid transformation this month after hiring a new team of experienced strategists who are determined to lock down the nomination for him. He’s tweeting less, staying off the Sunday news shows and even reading from scripts in an effort to appear more presidential.

As Slate’s Isaac Chotiner documented:

“You heard Donald Trump tonight sounding … more presidential,” Megyn Kelly noted playfully on Fox News. You could tell he was presidential in his New York victory speech, she felt, because he did not refer to Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted.” Everyone seemed to agree on this count. “I think one of the things that’s most significant,” GOP strategist Steve Schmidt was saying over on MSNBC, was that “it wasn’t ‘Lying Ted.’” “Exactly,” said his co-panelist Nicole Wallace, also a Republican. “It was ‘Senator Cruz.’” “Yes,” Wallace said. “Yes.”

This collective rush to judgment connected but a few small data points together. Yet, it was given credence on cable news and the Sunday network news shows, with CNN’s Greek chorus of panelists remarking in hushed tones on Trump’s more muted New York speech, and Chuck Todd on Meet the Press interpreting Trump’s Today show interview later that week as a meaningful shift to a general election persona. Trump sycophant Ann Coulter took the supposed pivot seriously over the weekend by tweeting that she hated the “new” Trump. Meanwhile, the New York Times became particularly focused on proving that Trump has embarked on a meaningful rhetorical shift. In an April 21st article on new Trump-whisperer Manafort’s presentation to anxious Republican donors at a Hollywood, Florida conclave, the Times quoted Manafort as saying of Trump: “That’s what’s important for you to understand: That he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving.” Or as New York Magazine described it in emphasizing Manafort’s new prominence: “Trump has clearly become a more disciplined candidate in the time Manafort’s been on the scene. There’ve been fewer errant comments about abortion or NATO and fewer embarrassing tweets.” A high standard of excellence indeed.

Yet as Chotiner convincingly continued:

[I]t was clear Tuesday night that, with Bernie all but cooked and Hillary in need of a new foil, the narrative now demanded that Trump be a candidate transformed. There was nothing Trump could’ve done to change the story. He could’ve swallowed his tie on stage, and Chris Matthews would still have acted as if he’d seen the ghost of John Lindsay sitting in his green room…Will any of this nonsense about the newly presidential Trump have an effect? Perhaps he will claw back a few wayward moderate voters in upcoming states, thanks to the friendly turn in media coverage, but the coverage isn’t going to help him beat Hillary Clinton in November. If he wants to do that, he is going to have to change his strategy entirely. Given that his strategy is an extension of his personality—given that his strategy is his personality—don’t count on it. As it stands, should Trump get the nomination, Hillary Clinton would have the easiest path to the presidency imaginable: All she’d have to do is sit back and let Trump soak up the limelight. The problem for Trump isn’t simply that his policies are unpopular; it’s that people do not like him. His personality may appeal to certain segments of the electorate, but those groups combined don’t constitute a majority of Republican voters, let alone the general population. He is a fringe figure in every sense.

This clear observational and data-driven reality has been utterly overlooked by those covering the presidential campaign for a living. The media’s collective decision to create a new frame in which to depict an increasingly lopsided general election matchup is the worst form of media-created hyperbole trumping journalistically reported news. Yes, Trump’s tempered tone was different from his usual charade. But sometimes a speech is just a speech. Yet, even those skeptical that Trump could effectively rebrand himself have given undo credibility to the idea that he would attempt to do so. Those commentators have pointed to Trump’s recent moderate statements on LGBT issues as part of a feint at reaching out to the middle. His subsequent waffling on the issue written off as merely an inability to stay focused.

But this is precisely the point. Even if intellectually Trump could see the wisdom in placing himself in the straitjacket of traditional politics—an extremely dubious proposition given the reality TV environment he has inhabited and placed importance on for decades—he has shown no ability to follow through on such an understanding. Trump has glaringly obvious personal weaknesses which are inexorable and overpowering. He is vain. He is deeply insecure. He is a showman utterly obsessed with the popular press—both in obtaining copious news coverage and in demanding that it is positive. He is notoriously thin skinned, refusing to let go of slights and insults for decades, and incapable of ignoring any personal attack against him. The media is well aware of these characteristics, having reported extensively on them as well. And yet it is firmly invested in ignoring the fact that these traits are wholly inconsistent with running a disciplined, traditional campaign. The past nine months have made that painfully clear. No matter, the press is intent upon announcing its dubious theory. Verdict first, and then the trial.

False media narratives are common events in political coverage, but what makes this one so galling is how truly nonexistent the factual basis for it is. Indeed, on the very night he was rolling to victory in New York and supposedly unveiling his new image, Trump retweeted the message of an avowed white supremacist—a disturbingly frequent practice of his “old” self. Just in the last few days alone he has lampooned the idea that he would reverse his irreverent, personality-based campaign style, mocking the very idea of acting presidential by play-acting a somber tone to the delight of his crowd, and engaging in the latest round of incendiary rhetoric. He immediately jettisoned the “Senator Cruz” formalities by again referring to his chief electoral rival as “Lyin’ Ted” while adding the flourish “Rafael! Straight out of the hills of Canada!” in a subsequent speech—playing upon xenophobic impulses in highlighting Cruz’s Cuban and Canadian roots. Then, as the Connecticut Mirror reported, Trump made a speech in Waterbury, Connecticut where he “stuck closely to what’s worked, delivering a meandering speech that circled back on itself, diverting for random asides about his daughter or his health.” That performance included an extended riff on outside attempts to make him appear presidential and included standard-issue personal attacks on rival John Kasich. It was not the buttoned down, statesman-like delivery of a moderated candidate promised from on high.

Trump made perfectly clear that attempts to ratchet down his outlandish personality will never take. He sees the presidential race like an episode of The Apprentice; getting votes (or ratings) and keeping people entertained are one and the same. “At some point, I’m going to be so presidential that you people will be so bored,” he told a recent audience, at once speaking the reassuring words expected of him while indicating that he has no intention of fulfilling them. Above all, Donald Trump refuses to ever be boring.

Instead, the “new” Trump is really about the predictable product of an old media. Specifically, this narrative (and others to come, no doubt) is the result of the media’s traditional, desperate prayer for tight, contested elections. That desired happening is slipping away. As much as Trump has boosted the ratings of primary debates, election nights, and, heck, even arbitrary Tuesday night speeches in dusty locales from Nevada to North Carolina, he is threatening to short-circuit the drama of a potential nail-biter on November 8th. Underreported but available for all to see are Trump’s staggering unfavorable ratings among the general electorate. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found only 24% of voters viewed Trump favorably while 65% viewed him unfavorably. This unbelievable negative forty-one-point deficit is “a historic low for a major presidential candidate.” Trump has the highest unfavorable ratings of any major presidential nominee at any point in their respective races, despite the fact that “unfavorable ratings tend to rise in the heat of a general election campaign.” Consequently, Trump currently trails Hillary Clinton by 9.3% in a hypothetical general election matchup per Real Clear Politics’ polling average.

If Trump and Clinton are indeed their parties’ respective nominees, we don’t need thousands of words and endless wild-eyed discussions among the ever growing cable news political panels to frame the race. Clinton is a flawed but generally acceptable and generic Democratic candidate, one apt to capitalize on President Obama’s decent favorability numbers and the American economy’s steady resurgence but also vulnerable to a popular, center-right Republican under the right circumstances. Trump, on the other hand, is not that Republican. He is a wildly unstable, car crash of a candidate: mesmerizing to all, but a disaster to those involved. His obnoxious attitude has won over a passionate few at the expense of repulsing a large majority. Insults directed at Mexicans and Muslims are the least of it—though surely the media cannot argue that a few Manafort machinations can erase those words—it is his very persona that has driven away so many. For every person willing to forgive Trump’s foibles to stick it to the system, there are two disgusted by what his rise might mean for our country.

This has been going on now since June 2015! How does the media imagine that an attitude reset might work even if it were attempted? Would deeply offended groups suddenly forgive and forget? More fundamentally, would everyday Americans inundated for nearly a year with Trump’s virulent and often violent demagoguery suddenly believe such a transparent effort to discard the hundreds of outrageous Trump appearances to this point? We know of the media’s bias towards covering a toss-up presidential election. That dynamic was well demonstrated in the Romney campaign’s last days, when objective data was ignored by wishful thinking. But that effort in this election cycle will be of an entirely different magnitude of difficulty, which the latest week has ably demonstrated. An uncompetitive election means fewer viewers and less to talk about. And so, to create a sense of excitement, the media will continue to dissemble and distract. In that respect, Trump and the media are very much alike.

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