|Flag I fly on my front porch. I want America first, too, Donald. It's also my flag.|
Much has been written by wiser people about Donald Trump’s surprising rise to presumptive GOP nominee.
It’s been an event I’ve watched with more than a touch of trepidation. Trump seems clearly to be one of the most ill-informed, inexperienced, walking-talking disasters to ever run for president. The established political rules, such as they are, are clearly off in this election cycle, and that creates a clear sense of unease in the media.
Leave behind the trope about the “liberal media,” which was always a bit too simplistic anyway, and is less true in a media landscape where the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are wildly popular. The media indeed have some biases built into them, but the political one isn’t necessarily the most important.
The media in America are creatures of large corporations that are both hated and loved by their employees. Two competing biases can be seen in the media—that business is evil (perhaps reflecting the actual experience of severely underpaid and insecure media employees), and that the only viable, “correct” form of economics is free-market capitalism.
That second economic bias reflects a strong pro status-quo bias in American media that is not always recognized. And some of what is happening in the media now is status-quo panic.
Let me join in. EEEEEK!
Whatever else you can say about Donald Trump, he clearly is not status quo—but not in some coherent, offers-a-clear-alternative, way. Trump is the inarticulate rage candidate, the burn-the-house-down candidate. And while I can understand the impetus for that feeling, its irrational expression doesn’t say anything positive about the body politics’ ability to think clearly.
Take facts, for example. Although people diss Hillary Clinton as being a habitual liar, on political issues and claims, it’s clearly Trump who is the champion liar, and the competition isn’t very close. See the Politifact ratings of both. For Donald Trump, 77 percent of his statements are rated mostly false, false or pants-on-fire lies. For Hillary Clinton, 73 percent of her statements are rated half true, mostly true and true. When Trump talks, you know he lies because his lips are moving. When Hillary Clinton talks, you can easily disagree with her policy positions, but she is usually citing facts, not wild conspiracy theories or internet hoaxes.
I am a bit worried about a Hillary Clinton presidency. The Bill Clinton years, fondly remembered as they are, also featured a dark underside, a Machiavellian political machine that Hillary was a key part of. Its return to power doesn’t fill me with glee. But Clinton, flawed as she is, is not Trump. And Trump is a genuinely dangerous character, a man whose thin skin and shoot-from-the-hip style would be disastrous if he is elected. Clinton may not be the fairy princess, but she does understand government and is a cautious, wily politician. As a president, we’re far better off with a cautious, wily politician than an ignorant egomaniac.
I know, that’s opinion, not fact, but I’m being honest about where I stand.
Trump promotes a false “Americanism” that isn’t really very American at all. And he is partly a media-created creature—a reality TV star whose political rise has been largely fueled by his greatest talent, which is to draw attention to himself. He may be a policy idiot, but he’s a self-aggrandizing genius. He’s a salesman who knows how to suck all of the media oxygen away from anybody else.
And, as the raucous, entertaining and rather scary primary campaigns are now ending, I’m worried that Trump’s media savvy might continue to make up for his total political incompetence. It feels as if a vast portion of the electorate lives in their own internet gated communities, where opposing views and facts are not welcome.
Still, I do take comfort that the future seems so hard to see. When, in May, Trump became the presumptive winner, my sense was that a terrorist attack and/or a Brexit vote to exit the EU would tip the general election in Trump’s favor. Well, thank goodness for the mouth of Trump. He has shown an amazing propensity to do what Democrats usually do—snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
In the wake of Orlando, a terror attack that highlights fears and thus plays to Trump, his self-congratulatory and inarticulate Tweets made him look looney.
In the 1980 election, the rise of Ronald Reagan was foreshadowed by the 1979 rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK. But in 2016, when old people in the UK voted that young people deserved no sensible European future, and Brexit passed by a narrow margin, fate would have it that Trump was on hand to ignorantly and ignominiously gloat.
In Scotland for the opening of a Trump golf course, he lavishly praised the Brexit vote, seemingly unaware that he was in one of four countries that make up the UK--and in Scotland, the vote was a landslide victory for the EU so large that the Scottish independence movement is suddenly viable again.
Not very PC, and not very good as political debate, either--but rather entertaining.
My worry has been that events would play into Trump’s hands. The fall election will probably be close, because the U.S. is a politically divided country and there are two wildly unpopular candidates chosen by our major parties.
Will Trump win? The Brexit vote suggests that a democracy can easily be hijacked by emotion and xenophobia. Perhaps, like the 1979 Thatcher election preceded the 1980 Reagan election, it could happen again.
Happily, there are reasons to think it may not:
- The U.S. electorate is way more diverse than the UK electorate. They are 87 percent white. We’re not. As a white male, I say, hallelujah. Our diversity may save us.
- The Brexit vote was on one issue. Immigration may be our Brexit issue—but it’s not quite as clear how it plays. It’s ironic that the Brits, who 100 years ago ruled a quarter of the world, want to turn away from that world. The U.S. has long been a land of immigrants who are hostile to newer immigrants, but it’s unclear how those competing cultural strains will play out. Important as immigration will be, it’s not the only issue in our election.
- Trump continues to be Trump. The bombastic Donald played well in the primaries, but so far has been a disaster in the general election campaign. Trump's over-active mouth and bad Twitter habits may yet lose the election for him.
Of course, I won’t take too much comfort from the final point. It’s too many months until the fall election, and Trump’s early summer lunacy will be forgotten. Hillary Clinton is savvy, but not always sensitive to her own shortcomings—Democrats have time to revert to form and blow it.
Anyway, has the media itself learned much? I am not sure. In the wake of Orlando and Brexit, the crazy stuff Trump said dominated the news cycles. What did Hillary think? Her post-Orlando speech was way more substantive and intelligent than anything Trump said—and didn’t echo in our current infotainment media environment.
The basic reason for a First Amendment to include freedom of speech and of the press is to promote a marketplace of ideas. I’m afraid that marketplace has degenerated into a carnival of flashy colors, sound and clowns who draw attention away from ideas and instead direct us to our basest fears.
Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope so. I do take comfort in the fact that I’ve been mostly wrong so far in this volatile year. I voted for Sanders in the January Iowa caucuses—I didn’t exactly pick the primary campaign winner. I thought Cruz would probably be the Republican nominee—and it says something when Crazy Ted was the “rational” Republican choice. So perhaps my fears of a close election and a Trump victory are overblown.
I can only hope so. “President Trump” are words I hope I never hear. “President Clinton.” No, those words don’t make me wildly ecstatic. But they don’t convince me that the body politic and the media have gone crazy, either.