Future news

Raging bull: Trump versus the media, and this time it’s personal

Reuters/Mike Segar

Donald Trump’s descent back into the sleazy world of entitled rich men from which he came is now underway.

Even if the child rape allegations coming to court on December 16 don’t go anywhere – and the plaintiff alleges that he threatened her and her family with death if she continued with them, so you couldn’t blame her for settling out of court – enough has now been confirmed about his character, beliefs and values that victory on November 8 must be extremely improbable.

Pollster Nate Silver, who correctly predicted the outcome of all 50 states in 2012, and of 49 out of 50 in 2008, puts the probability of a Trump victory at 14.1% with three weeks to go.

That’s reassuring for those of us, inside and out of the US, who have watched agog his progress through the campaign, seemingly invulnerable to the outrageous statements he routinely makes.

It had seemed at one point that even if Trump went out and shot someone dead in the street, as he actually boasted he could at one rally, a sizeable proportion of the US population - perhaps even a majority - would vote for him anyway.

In the end, his declared relish at the prospect of French-kissing and pussy-groping women he doesn’t know and without their consent, and the subsequent flood of allegations now engulfing his campaign, has done for him. Those “family values” conservatives like John McCain simply can’t cope with his craziness anymore, and no amount of toadying up from Mike Pence or Rudy Giuliani or the other Trump surrogates can change that at this stage.

Some of us remember when a casual remark by Gerard Ford, in a televised debate with Jimmy Carter – “there is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe” – lost him the 1976 campaign.

Remember when Gary Hart got caught in an affair – entirely consensual – with Donna Rice? Killed his 1988 campaign stone dead.

Trump declares “I know nothing about Russia”, and praises Assad and Putin for “killing terrorists” in Aleppo, ignoring the thousands killed by gas attacks, the dead children and doctors, the bombing of humanitarian aid convoys, and gets away with it. His performance in the second debate where he made these statements was judged by many to have been better than Clinton’s.

He has moved the goalposts of what is acceptable behaviour in a presidential candidate so far that we have no language adequate to critique or refute him.

We look aghast at the Phillipines’ Rodrigo Duerte’s comments about slaughtering 3 million drug dealers “like the Nazis did to the Jews”, or his reference to Barack Obama as “a son of a whore”. These are little worse than many of the things the aspiring 45th president has declared to the howling mobs screaming for Hillary Clinton to be “locked up” at his rallies.

He is going to lose, though, and Clinton should, over the next four-to-eight years, feel free to punish Trump and his supporters for their violations and obscenities.

She will probably be conciliatory and forgiving, being the principled public servant that she is, but at the least she should ensure through moral leadership and legislation that the ideas of Trump and his extreme-right supporters are marginalised beyond all hope of recovery in our lifetimes. If not, they will return to haunt us in four years, or eight.

Trump is reported to be going to establish a TV network that will make Fox News look like Russia Today in its propaganda and promotion of the Trump personality cult.

The younger males – probably not daughter Ivanka, whom he talks about as a “piece of ass” with his “locker-room” cronies – in his family will replace the old man with even more virulently fascistic appeals to the mob, and do so with much greater sophistication and self-control than the raging bull has managed.

The next big fight for the soul of America could well be between Michelle Obama and Donald Trump Jr., in 2024. That gives the Democrats a maximum of eight years to tackle the genuine concerns that gave Trump his populist resonance, and also the lies and myths which have fuelled his divisive policy proposals.

Trump is right about some things, and those aspects of his pitch that have appealed to so many voters must be understood and dealt with constructively by Clinton’s administration.

The GOP is dead as a serious force for some time to come, and Clinton must fill the vacuum with inclusive leadership that both calls out the racist, sexist, anti-Muslim elements of Trump’s platform while responding to the people’s genuine concerns about how to deal with the threats posed by Islamist terror, the widening gap between rich and poor in America, the scandal of corporate tax-dodging (of which, ironically, Trump is a self-proclaimed master).

There must be a reckoning, and a harsh lesson taught to all of those whose support brought America so close to disaster. In her first 100 days, and especially if she has a sympathetic Congress behind her, Clinton should strike hard at the sources of alt-right strength and support – not put them on trial, as Trump would do to her, but humiliate and shame them with all the resources available to the most-powerful leader on the planet.

This brings us to the media.

Trump has now offered his alibi for the defeat he knows is imminent – a great media conspiracy (along with the banks, corporations, and other institutions) has been taking place, he argues, to misrepresent his ordinary guy schtick and portray him unfairly as a very bad man.

He questions the integrity of the electoral process – as bad losers often do. He blames his own party, although they have in the main supported him until the very last shred of their credibility has been sacrificed.

But he blames above all the “elite”, establishment media. In the extremely unlikely event that he were to win in November, it’s clear he would attack the freedom of the press in the US like no other president before.

Many who have viewed his rise with disbelief turning to dread, on the other hand, have blamed the media for facilitating or enabling his progress.

I don’t blame the media for the phenomenon of official GOP-nominee Trump, not in the sense of alleging any bias or pro-Trump intent on the part of the US media as a whole.

Fox News was an extension of his campaign, and disgraced CEO Roger Ailes moved straight from running Fox to Trump’s inner campaign team. Fox pundit Sean Hannity is Trump’s Lord Haw-Haw, providing apologetics and propaganda for him at every opportunity. Stephen Bannon’s Breitbart has played a similar role, with Bannon acting as CEO for the campaign since 2015.

But the majority of the US media have not been advocates for Trump, so much as mere channels for his GOP-sponsored message, believing it is their democratic duty to cover all legitimate candidates fairly.

As I’ve argued previously in this space, routine political news values elevated Trump to the headlines because of the transgressive things he said in public fora.

That’s how free media work, I’m afraid – the unusual, the extraordinary, the outlier – are what constitute newsworthiness. But this campaign has exposed a weakness in the conventions of “objective” journalism; a dangerous vulnerability to the demagogue and the populist, especially in a digital media environment of the type we now inhabit.

Comparisons to the rise of Hitler are not hyperbolic in this regard. He too rode the wave of aggrieved populist nativism, supported by media collaborators and “respectable” politicians who couldn’t see the danger until it was too late. But Hitler didn’t have Twitter, nor a primetime reality TV show to boost his profile.

Had the Republican Party had even one competent candidate capable of putting together an effective alternative campaign, they would have got the coverage instead. As it was, Trump played both his party and the media like violins, and reaped the rewards come primary season.

Once nominated, he was absolutely entitled to the quantity of coverage he received. He was entitled, too, to the same degree of objectivity and fairness in reportage of his policies as Clinton. And no-one can say that he didn’t get it.

And because he got such an easy ride from the start, his claim to a media conspiracy now looks pathetic rather than persuasive. Even in the era of truthiness and post-factuality, it makes no sense. Former Fox controversialist Glenn Beck, not known for his affection for the Clintons or Obama, has declared that “opposing Trump is a moral choice” for American conservatives.

The same media that took him seriously because he was the frontrunner and then official GOP nominee – thus reinforcing his legitimacy within the rules of the game as conventionally understood – are now quite entitled to report his statements as revealed in leaked tapes, depositions about alleged child rape, and everything else that is going to come out between now and November 8.

They are, to quote Trump, simply “telling it like it is”, in an entirely non-conspiratorial fashion. They will take no credit for his defeat, only for doing their democratic duty as journalists.

Trump would have been the first reality TV president. It was The Apprentice that made him a celebrity to the hordes who to this day remain loyal to their “God Emperor”. It is they who will pay him millions of their hard earned dollars to watch his TV network if and when it launches, and who will be stiffed just like the students of Trump University and the unpaid small business contractors naively trusting enough to deal with him.

For the rest of us, the ease with which such a person could come so close to control of the world’s most-powerful economy, and to the nuclear trigger, is the truly frightening thing about this entire episode. It has changed all the rules of political campaigning, and will require a new analytic language to fully understand both what has happened, and what it means for the future of liberal democracy in the digital age.

On November 9, 2016, as we welcome president-elect Clinton with a well-earned sigh of relief, let’s get started on that analysis.

Brian McNair is the author of Communication and Political Crisis: media, governance and democracy in a globalised public sphere, New York, Peter Lang, 2016.