(October 10, 2016)
Donald Trump was never a politician, and billionaires are a dime a dozen (or billion a dozen, anyway) but what made Trump special was that he was a blowhard billionaire reality star with no substance at all, which meant that he could not be judged by the same standards as real politicians. He swept away the competition in the GOP that way, with the press–the television press especially–holding all his opponents to much higher standards of behavior, awareness, truthfulness and anything even remotely presidential, while The Donald acted like, well, a billionaire blowhard reality star. In the process, Trump and the television press managed to lower the level of discourse and debate to cataclysmically low standards, especially as no matter what Donald Trump said, the press began repeating it with deadly seriousness. Perhaps they scoffed a bit at his penis references–heh heh–in the early GOP debates, but they accepted his armchair neurologist diagnosis of Hillary as an epileptic with drop dead seriousness. She needs to get to a neurologist right now! demanded Brian Williams live on NBC as Hillary stumbled, weakened from a mild case of walking pneumonia. Apparently Brian had seen those fake spasm videos so much he was believing them, medical science and truth be damned.
But then Brian Williams was just doing what the press has been doing all along. Whatever Trump says the media will echo, and they will find surrogates for their panels to defend even his most outrageous and stupid prevarications, to which his opponents–at long last only Hillary–are compared with. They have to show that their network too is fair and balanced, so if Trump says something horrible, then Hillary too must have said something horrible too. If Trump did something awful, then Hillary must have done something just as awful. Think how differently Nixon’s career would have turned out had the Washington Post insisted that the Democrats were just as guilty of illegalities as poor Dick Nixon. But here was no sense of innate balance then, the press didn’t have to find McGovern’s evil ying to match Tricky Dick’s criminal yang. Fair and balanced did not mean everyone must be equally guilty.
Yet that is the way so much of the press coverage is presented in this election, particularly on television . And the White House press corps, raised on the ethos of All the President’s Men, make no attempt whatsoever to conceal their overweening sense of intellectual and moral superiority over the politicians they cover. It oozes like molasses across all the TV coverage, as if they, the press, had nothing to do with the disgraceful displays of lies and filth and hate we heard from Trump in last night’s debate, when they in fact are almost completely responsible for it being on that stage at all. They cultivated it. It made good TV. Trump makes the best TV ever. Hell, look at the ratings. A presidential debate buried the NFL, twice. Advertising revenues must be going through the roof. Traffic to websites reaching astronomical levels. Even Kim Kardashian is buried under the stuff coming out of Trump’s mouth. This is certainly better than any of those deadly dull issues discussions. No one watches TV to learn about education. This is politics as show biz. And no one knows show biz better than Trump. He is the P.T. Barnum of politics, and there is a reporter born every minute.
You could see all this in the glare of the post debate analysis last night on MSNBC and CNN (I couldn’t get myself to watch FoxNews). Maybe half the men–and none of the women–on the panels insisted that Trump had a good debate. It was all on style points. Threatening to jail your opponent? Well, yeah, that was bad, but his base loved it. Throwing Mike Pence under the bus? Well, yeah, that was bad, but his base loved it. About glorifying Putin? Admitting utter ignorance about Russia? Bragging about not paying taxes? All bad, but his base loved it. Somehow all that mattered to these men was that the sloppy, bigoted, and collectively none too deep base that was the ragged Greek Chorus off stage dug everything that Trump said, no matter how hateful, how much a lie, how authoritarian, how blatantly ignorant. And the consensus after a couple hours discussion on both CNN and MSNBC? Trump won the debate. How? By not losing. Hillary–though none of them uttered the word–lacked stamina.
Was that the debate you saw? No. And how did these genuinely very intelligent guys come to that counter-intuitive conclusion? By holding Trump to a much, much lower standard than Hillary. So low that there was no way to even approach Trump’s level with aping Trump. Apparently, that is a hood thing for Trump. His base loved it. The rest of us do not count in this analysis. Donald Trump seems to have a big male chunk of the Washington press corps completely under his spell. Hypnotized. Crow like a rooster. They crow like a rooster. Dance. They dance. Quote everything I say. They quote everything he says. They do all that without even a hint of discussing the issues. Not even a hint of journalistic self-awareness that they are not talking about the issues. Indeed, they still feel terrific about themselves as professional journalists. Mark Halperin had a brief moment of self-consciousness about this on his show a few days ago, but decided it was the fault of the candidates. Co-host John Heileman said how could they report on issues when the two campaigns–Hillary and Trump–are essentially moral and issueless cesspools? Of course, Hillary’s campaign is perhaps more issue oriented than any other nominees in American presidential history, but never mind, the press has spoken. They report only on scandals, therefore this campaign is only about scandals.
Of course, it is reporting on those scandals that gets you on TV. All those talking head appearances on the networks help pay the mortgage, help boost your Twitter following, help make you a TV personality. Besides, you don’t get called back if you insist on talking about the deficit. The press covered the nomination campaign as a horse race, and since the conventions they’ve covered it as heavyweight boxing match, and issues be damned, integrity be damned, that’s how it will be reported. By that measure, and that measure only, Trump had a good debate. What the hell? It’s only show biz.