By now nearly every American has heard the infamous Donald Trump line about Mexican immigration: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump has a record of saying things that spark media attention as racist or otherwise hateful, but he has managed to cross that particular line without crossing a further line that would lose him followers. In this way, the media attention serves to bolster his reputation for straight-talk with his followers, while getting his speech to a wider audience. In playing into this strategy, the news media is doing a disservice to their audience.
It’s worth noting that the media is both confused and conflicted about how to approach Trump. The Huffington Post famously began coverage of him by relegating Trump stories to the Entertainment section, before reversing course in December. Scores of think pieces like a March Politico article, “Did the media create Trump?” reflect on the ways the media may have been unwitting pawns of the Trump campaign. In a telling segment for NPR’s On The Media, host Bob Garfield interrogates CNN’s Jake Tapper about interviewing Trump. Though Tapper is widely considered one of major media’s toughest interviewers of Trump, Garfield essentially argued that Tapper and other journalists should be still tougher and even overtly combative. Many interviewers have guessed (probably correctly) that revealing their biases in an aggressive manner will abandon both guest and audience, but it’s also true that journalists are struggling with their usual approach where Trump is concerned.
One thing is clear: Trump is truly a master of messaging. Dilbert cartoonist and political blogger Scott Adams has written extensively about Trump’s use of hypnosis techniques. Though Adams writes about this in a tone both hyperbolic and at times downright gleeful, he’s not far off. Trump often repeats his sentences in rapid succession, and uses simple repetitive phrasing to tie descriptive words irrevocably to himself (tremendous, incredible) and his opponents (lyin’, crooked, goofy, little) They aren’t so much nicknames as focus-group tested descriptors that are hard to dissociate once you’ve heard them enough times. These tactics aren’t a magic bullet to win the presidency, but they do work. Between his skill with getting attention and his skill with using it, Trump is not to be underestimated.
My own concerns about Trump are not focused on the things he says that encourage racial discrimination, though those truly are dangerous statements. I am not worried that his presidential plans are overambitious or too vague. I’m not even worried when Trump seems confused by policy and economics. I don’t want the media to focus on picking apart every little thing he says. I’m here with a message as simple as “Tremendous Trump” or “Goofy Elizabeth Warren.” I am worried by one single statement he made, and all the things he’s subsequently said to support that statement: that Trump admires Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader.
Now don’t misinterpret me, I’m not kept up at night that a Trump administration will make nice with a disreputable world leader. Our country has to work with Putin regardless of who is in power. But Trump, as some have pointed out, has made public statements that indicate he’d like to be a Putin-like leader. He is not underhanded about it – he’s made it clear that his goal is to discredit and punish his political enemies, consolidate power, and make his presidency more about himself than about his country. This warrants more focus than any bit of racism or shoddy policy because it means that Trump plans to enact these goals without the checks and balances that have thus far prevented mediocre presidents from destroying the country. This ambition, combined with the likely large number of Supreme Court appointments during the next term, puts our democracy in more danger than it has experienced since the Civil War. Our country has a history of electing presidents who embrace the rhetoric of democracy, and it has served us well. But it has also led to a sense that that democracy is immutable, and this is a dangerous type of complacency.
A Republican party recently steered by an insurgent Tea Party that valued freedom and extremely limited government has been co-opted by a heretofore unseen group that conservative publication “National Review” immediately dubbed the “Jacksonian” wing of the party. (For history on the use of this term, see Walter Russell Mead’s prescient 1999 National Interest article “The Jacksonian Tradition.”) The Jacksonians’ universal distrust of current power structures and fervent nationalism makes them a ripe base for a textbook dictatorial ascent. But conflating the Tea Party with this new cabal is wrong ignores the nuance of the modern GOP story.
For sure, the Tea Party’s distrust of establishment has left the gaping backdoor in GOP party politics through which Trump has sauntered. But unsurprisingly, the Tea Party has turned out to be less than monolithic. Former Tea Partiers have been split on Trump (56% supported him according to a February 2016 CNN Poll), as would be expected when the Tea Party ideals of outsider rule and media-hatred conflict with their wariness of strongmen and embrace of liberty. Apparently years of GOP demonization of Obama for his moves to consolidate executive power (such as his reliance on executive actions and expansion of drone strikes) have, in many, fueled a desire to send in a bigger strongman in an apparent “The King, the Mice and the Cheese” strategy. This will work out about as well as it does in the popular children’s book.
My hope for media coverage going forward is that we cover this aspect of the Trump candidacy, because it is the one that concerns the most people. While there may be a subset of the American voting public that wants leadership through fear and corruption, the majority of Trump supporters see the rhetoric about his dictatorial tendencies as either hyperbole or comparable to similar descriptions of Obama’s regime. While Obama has not used rhetoric or tactics in any way similar to Trump’s unprecedented judge-discrediting and violence-inciting, the tone of criticism of Obama’s dictatorial tendencies has not been dissimilar. Many observers understandably have trouble distinguishing the two.
A closer examination of Trump’s interpretation of democracy is warranted because rhetoric matters. As a national figure, people will reproduce ideas Trump introduces regardless of his later contradictions. And though it’s easy to not take seriously any one thing Trump says (as he often contradicts himself or makes obvious exaggerations), it is just as easy for a newly elected Trump to use his pre-electoral rhetoric as a referendum to start consolidating power. While it is a noble goal (a goal that I myself pursue) for journalists to step back from bias and try to understand the many diverse views that combine to form this country, we should be very worried about America’s future as we watch Trump’s rise.