יום שבת, 6 במאי 2017

What the Press Still Doesn’t Get About Trump

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

He’s not unprecedented. He’s not going to change. And 11 other lessons the media still haven’t learned about the president.


There was lots of hand-wringing after the election about how the media had messed up. Were we too quick to believe the polls? Did we have any idea what real Americans actually thought? Did we give Donald Trump too much attention—or not enough? Now that journalists have spent a few months covering President Trump, we asked a range of media critics, political operatives, historians and more: What does the press still get wrong about Trump, and what do we just not get at all?

1. We forget what has always driven Trump.
Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President

Too often, the press forgets the very lessons Trump himself has taught us about how he operates and why it often works. For example, journalists often imply that Trump’s reliance on cable news is a liability because it leaves him ill-informed. And so it does—but it also leaves him highly attuned to that medium and able to respond to what he sees there with immediate, pitch-perfect tweets or other comments that come across as direct, authentic and trustworthy.

Another example: the power of repetition. Frequently, reporters assume that because they have already responded to a Trump assertion, the issue is settled. But then he repeats the same misinformation, as he did in defending the size of his inauguration crowds. In part, this is because he’s incapable of acknowledging loss or error. More important, it’s because one of his highest priorities is the construction of an alternate narrative and the delegitimization of the mainstream media, traditional authorities, and the primacy of facts.

Likewise, the press seems to have forgotten the power of distraction. Coverage of the Trump-ordered missile attack in Syria made little reference to how conveniently it deflected attention from Russia-gate, Trump’s conflicts of interest, his draconian budget cuts, etc. The media also understate Trump’s reliance on bullying, which works surprisingly well for him. With the recent exception of the House Freedom Caucus’ refusal to knuckle under and vote for the GOP’s health care act, most people (e.g., the other Republican presidential candidates and many TV commentators) back down.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

Trump has also mastered the power of grievance and continues to use it. When an issue gets too sticky, he reverts to self-pity—fashioning himself as the victim of Barack Obama’s supposed wiretapping, for instance. The media might call such behavior weak or petty, but it also re-cements Trump’s bond with his followers as fellow victims of the Washington elite.

Finally, the press tends to forget how much Trump needs to keep experiencing the act of winning—and how much this drives his behavior. The likeliest reason for his charge that Obama wiretapped him is that Trump wants to feel as if he’s continuing to beat the biggest competitor he can find. And what bigger target than Obama?

2. Trump. Won’t. Change.
Kurt Bardella, president and CEO of Endeavor Strategies

Anyone who thought Trump would pivot and become a more conventional political figure after he took the oath of office was completely misreading him and his psyche. Trump is, and always will be, a promoter. Facts and specifics are secondary to tone, style and strength. In the immediate aftermath of his first address to Congress, the political and media community was quick to point to that speech as a turning point. For one hour, Trump acted presidential—“acted” being the key word. Days later, he took to Twitter and remarkably and falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping his offices. So much for turning over a new leaf. And that’s the point: No matter what happens, how far his numbers plummet or how often his statements are fact-checked, Trump is not going to change, and his audience doesn’t want him to. For almost a decade now, the American people have been bombarded with messaging from campaigns that highlight how Washington is broken, how the status quo is failing them and how change is needed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising across all TV, print, radio and digital have been spent hammering this fundamental message into the minds of the American people. Trump is not part of the status quo that Americans have now been conditioned to oppose—and he’s not going to change to accommodate to Washington.

3. We still trust the polls too much.
Helmut Norpoth, political scientist at Stony Brook University

During the campaign, almost nobody in the media gave Trump a chance to win the election. That gloomy prospect largely derived from his poor standing in the polls, both nationally and in the major battleground states, with almost no poll showing Trump leading in the three states that clinched his victory in the Electoral College—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This failure, one might think, would give the media some pause in seizing on polls that now show Trump with low approval, the worst of any president at this stage. But no, polls nowadays feed news coverage that gives Trump little chance to make it through his first term and assumes there’s no way for him to avoid a midterm disaster. Granted, presidential approval is not the same as a vote choice, but it is a proven predictor of the vote in midterm and presidential elections. It is odd to see journalists retain their faith in a discredited source instead of questioning its reliability. Shouldn’t they instead launch an inquiry into the 2016 polling fiasco?

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

4. ‘Trump is crazy’ has become a cliché.
John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University and author of Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally)

The cherished idea that Trump is mentally unstable, endlessly massaged by media writers, is weak. Too many of us have known people much like him in his boyish, defensive, unfocused and breezily incurious essence; it is almost weird that we are pretending that it is a sign of pathology that someone has a hard time admitting he’s wrong. Trump is simply a profoundly mediocre person tragically unfit for the presidency. What’s “crazy” is that he wound up there.

Social media’s eclipse of the smoke-filled room accounts for that much more gracefully than an alarum painting Trump as fit for psychoanalysis and medication. Is this idea of Trump as madman possibly a variation on the too-typical disparagement of the modestly educated whites “out there” who voted for Trump? Now that the general call in the media is to hold off on tarring them as racist troglodytes and sexists, it seems that a new way of punishing them is to say that they were so dumb they elected an obvious lunatic to the presidency because he said he would get their jobs back. But what if he is less loony than just a jerk? Plenty of presidents have been jerks, and possibly most of them.

Neither the media nor the “out there” people deserve anything called blame for Trump’s election. Social history is not only nasty but complex. Pointing fingers, however, isn’t.

5. We’re not only stuck in bubbles—social media is making them worse.
Emily Parker, former chief strategy officer at Parlio and author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground

On March 15, a Guardian correspondent tweeted a photo of a Trump voter at a rally for the president in Nashville. The man was holding a sign that read, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” This was a perfect distillation, it seemed, of the regret that onetime Trump supporters were surely feeling now that he was actually in office. Sure enough, the tweet was retweeted more than 40,000 times.

Viral images create their own kind of truth. One man’s sign can give the impression that Trump voters are changing their minds more than they are, or that the rally was a failure. This is not the Guardian correspondent’s fault. There’s no reason to believe that the photo was fake news, or that the journalist was trying to mislead. He was reporting “from the ground,” and not from the coastal media bubbles. That same day, he also tweeted a photo of White House press secretary Sean Spicer surrounded by fans (though it very got few retweets).

Fourth Estate
The Media Bubble Is Real—And Worse Than You Think

By Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty

The “huge mistake” tweet is just one example of a more widespread phenomenon. Images like this can buoy those in the Trump opposition—who, after all, may be more likely to read reporters’ tweets. But such images also risk lulling people into thinking that Trump is less popular than he is. Too often, we cherry-pick examples that fit our worldview, and social media blows them out of proportion. Many journalists vastly underestimated Trump’s popularity before the election; the media need to avoid making the same mistake now that he is president.

6. We’re still ignoring the people who elected Trump.
Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon

There was a brief moment after the election when the press said it would devote more coverage not to Trump but to the people who had voted him into office. What had driven 46 percent of the country to vote for an outsider billionaire with no government experience, despite serious reservations about his temperament and character, was a question that deserved an answer. Was it really the case that rising inequality and political polarization had separated the makers of news and opinion at our most eminent outlets from about half of the public they sought to inform?

I think it was. Washington and New York have done so well in the past 20 years that residents of those cities and their suburbs—and I am one—could not see beyond the geographic, economic and social boundaries of our lives. We were largely immune from the collective shocks of the early 21st century: the border shock of rising illegal immigration, the trade shock of Chinese imports, the economic shock of the financial crisis, and the confidence shock of disappointing outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are continually tempted to devote our attention and resources to parochial concerns, to the Beltway questions of who is up and who is down, which party is winning and which is losing, what controversy the president finds himself mired in today. But this is to miss the forest for the tweets.

If there is one thing the press still gets wrong about Trump, it is treating him in isolation from the very real and worrisome social conditions that brought him to power.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

7. We’re falling for the ‘Trump exceptionalism’ trap.
Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor of presidential studies at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics

Many journalists covering the White House have lapsed into a practice of “Trump exceptionalism,” a tendency to assume each move the administration makes is new and nefarious. This assumption comes from a well-meaning place—a worry that they will be complicit in normalizing dangerous behavior in an American leader. But there are real risks, too.

First, it leads to quick-trigger panic over events that are normal. Take the reaction to the administration’s dismissal of 46 U.S. attorneys. Journalists framed it as a purge, and the panic escalated when one of those attorneys, Preet Bharara, refused to resign and was subsequently fired. But the dismissal of U.S. attorneys has been standard practice since the 1990s. The novel behavior here was Bharara’s. There’s a cost to getting this wrong: Cry wolf too many times, and readers are less likely to listen when the real dangers appear.

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