A bizarre piece of meta-commentary that trickles in whenever Donald Trump says some insane thing, and journalists flood the zone over it, is as follows: The media should be ignoring him. He is clearly just saying something for attention, and so the appropriate adult way to respond is to deny him the attention he seeks. In feeding the beast, the media is complicit in a vicious cycle, in which Trump says something nuts to get attention, the media gives him that attention, that attention is responsible for his high numbers, and then he does it again.
Jeb Bush, who is not getting much media attention—something that perhaps he should be grateful for since much of the attention has been negative—told reporters Tuesday that Trump is “playing you guys like a fine Stradivarius violin. … This is what he does. He’s an expert at this, he’s phenomenal at garnering attention.”
Arianna Huffington, whose publication announced in July that it would cover Trump under its Entertainment vertical instead of Politics, reversed that decision in a blog post Monday that strangely omitted the part where she might acknowledge that her news organization completely misread the political story of the year. Huffington argues that “Trump, aided by the media,” has brought us to this wild point wherein a leading presidential candidate is saying crazy things. He says a destructively crazy thing, the media abettors publicize it, and here we are.
Huffington writes that her news outlet will now cover Trump under Politics but will strive to point out that Trump is a racist or a xenophobe in its write-ups. As if no other publication has considered this over the last five months, while the Huffington Post was dismissing the racist, xenophobic proto-fascist as an entertaining “sideshow” unworthy of its vigorous political consideration but certainly worthy of placement as a click-receptacle under a more frivolous but well-trafficked banner.
I do not think that the media should ignore Trump when he says crazy things. Ha! I would say that, right? But really. I am of the school that thinks it is the media’s duty to cover a presidential candidate when he or she says crazy things, intentionally or not, and to provide the coverage, even if they crave the attention. Because doing so does not help Trump to the extent that he believes it does. It has, instead, likely helped to seal his doom at one stage or another in the process.
Any presidential candidate could stampede Trump-like across the media if they so choose, saying insane thing after insane thing with few, if any, intermissions for non-insane utterances. It’s not especially hard. What is an outlandish, racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, or just plain nonsensical thing that might earn plenty of attention and (re-)rile up the baser elements of the electorate? Coming up with crafty insults or unconstitutional policies that might briefly feed the id is not especially difficult.
For the most part, presidential candidates hope to avoid appearing blatantly awful or uninformed in the media spotlight because it hurts their chances. Ben Carson, an excellent surgeon, has very little knowledge of national public policy, foreign or domestic, and the heavy dose of media attention that he received once he began rising exposed these flaws. Carson is now plummeting. That is usually what happens when someone completely unprepared for the presidency gets media attention and cannot effectively answer basic questions.
Trump has famously broken that trend. He’s covered negatively and with extreme scrutiny because he says a lot of awful things. What we’ve found out this year is that a not-insignificant segment of the Republican Party loves the awful things he says and credits him with the “courage” for saying them. Let’s say that group’s about 25 to 30 percent of the party, if the polls are correct. So Trump keeps saying awful things along these lines in order to keep that group happy.
But Sen. Marco Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. Chris Christie could also call for, say, a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and lordy, would they get plenty of attention, too. CNN and MSNBC and Politico and Slate would be all over the story because we’d have a viable presidential candidate calling for blanket discrimination on the basis of religion. And that candidate would get a boost among one element of the party.
The reason they don’t say these things, or suggest that Megyn Kelly was mean because she was probably menstruating, or whatever else, is because they hope at some point to cobble together a majority of Republican delegates and, eventually, a majority of electors. Trump’s behavior makes the people who like him really like him, but it turns off a much bigger chunk of the pie.
The media is enabling Trump—to hang himself. He’s chosen a campaign strategy of using media attention to lock up roughly one-quarter of the primary vote, and in doing so, mortgaged off his chances of winning the presidency. He enjoys being the polling frontrunner, an honor he only gets by virtue of the absurdly large Republican field. If there’s one group that really could enable Trump’s ability to become the nominee, it would be the crowded “establishment lane,” if it ever gets around to its much-needed self-winnowing.
But if Trump or any other candidate wants to use the media to make him or herself an unelectable, one-dimensional candidate who’s repellent to most people? Hit us up. The system works, at one point or another.