As he spirals downward in the polls, as the parade of women charging him with various forms of sexual assault grows longer, and as the rebellion he faces from members of his own party intensifies, Donald Trump seems to be losing his grip on reality — and pulling his most ardent supporters along with him. The Republican Party is going to have a lot of work ahead of it in repairing the damage after this election is over.
For a moment I’d like to focus on the challenge Trump has presented to sane Republicans when it comes to the media.
Yesterday, Trump added a new dimension to the baseline level of derangement that characterizes all his rallies. Now he says there’s a global conspiracy out to get him, “in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.” The primary tool of this conspiracy is the media, whose “agenda is to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any costs, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy.”
And the Wall Street Journal reports that later today…
Trump will broaden his attack against the media to hit globalism and the Clinton Foundation by charging that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is part of a biased coalition working in collusion with the Clinton campaign and its supporters to generate news reports of decades-old allegations from several women.
Slim is a significant shareholder of the New York Times, and as a wild and utterly unsubstantiated allegation, this one has the benefit of roping in not just one of the world’s wealthiest people but a Mexican into the supposed grand conspiracy. Trump is also threatening to sue the Times because they printed a story about the allegations women have made that Trump kissed and groped them against their will.
Trump’s threat may be farcical to anyone who knows anything about the law, but to his supporters it only increases the sense that they and their champion are being victimized by powerful, malevolent forces. And from the beginning of this campaign, Trump has poured a kind of open hostility and contempt on reporters that we’ve truly never seen before. Every politician thinks the coverage he or she gets is unfair, and some of them talk about it publicly from time to time. But only Trump will stand in front of reporters and call them “among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever met,” then point to a reporter who asked a question he didn’t like and say “You’re a sleaze.”
Every single Trump rally features a diatribe against the press; when he delivers it, the crowd will then turn around and hurl invective at the assembled reporters covering the event. They’ll also come by before and after the rally to shout and curse at reporters or give them the finger. As Ben Schreckinger reports: “Crowds that once booed and shouted at the press mainly at Trump’s prompting — when he would decry them as ‘dishonest’ and ‘scum’ or demand that television cameras pan his crowds — have now begun spontaneously targeting the press on their own, at a scale not yet seen in this campaign, or any in memory on American soil.”
As frightening as that is, like so much of the Trump campaign it really just takes what Republicans have been doing for decades and turns it up to 11. Since the 1970s, Republicans have charged that the media are biased against them, as liberal reporters supposedly skew the news to help elect Democrats and advance liberal policy goals. In some ways, this narrative of media bias has been very helpful to the right: it provides an easy excuse when things don’t go their way, and it keeps the media under pressure, often causing misleading coverage as reporters bend over backward to prove the critics wrong.
But it also has a downside, one that has become more clear in the last few years. As conservatives built up their own alternate media universe, particularly talk radio (which exploded in the early 1990s) and Fox News (which launched in 1996), they increasingly withdrew into a self-reinforcing bubble that divorced them from reality. When you’re constantly telling yourself that every bit of information that doesn’t reinforce your pre-existing views must be a lie, it becomes difficult to see the world clearly and make smart strategic decisions.
When this campaign ends, there will be an enormous amount of anger within the Republican base — anger at the media, anger at Hillary Clinton, anger at this global conspiracy Trump is trying to convince them exists, and, guess what, anger at the GOP establishment for failing to deliver what they promised and failing to support Trump with enough enthusiasm. It could be a whole new kind of revolt, the seeds of which were sown back in 2009.
Back then, when they were confronted with a GOP base enraged by the election of Barack Obama, Republicans attempted to co-opt it, by saying, “We’re angry too!” One establishment Republican after another proclaimed themselves to be Tea Partiers, winked and nodded at birtherism, encouraged the most ludicrously apocalyptic interpretations of ordinary political and policy disagreements (death panels!), and generally tried to ride the tiger of their base’s rage while prodding it to ever greater heights of mania.
But only someone like Trump, an outsider willing to encourage every ugly prejudice and vile impulse anyone might have, could truly give that beast what it wanted. So after telling their constituents to steep themselves in conspiracy theories, stabbed-in-the-back narratives, and endless cries of victimhood, Republicans were shocked when those ways of seeing the world became a weapon aimed at the GOP itself.
But now, it’s important for Republicans to understand this critical fact about Trump’s outright declaration of war against the media: It’s failing. It hasn’t intimidate reporters into giving him the adulatory coverage he wanted; in fact, if anything it has encouraged them to investigate him as thoroughly as possible and describe him accurately as the uniquely disturbing and threatening candidate he is.
So just as Republicans are going to have to find a way to put a lid on their base’s xenophobia and sexism if they’re ever to have a chance of winning back the White House, they need to be careful not to indulge Trump’s conspiracy theories about the media, not least the conclusion that if only the sinister press hadn’t been out to get them, they might have won. If they let that idea fester, their voters will retreat further into their own informational cocoon, a place from which nominating a candidate like Donald Trump for president seems like a reasonable thing to do. And they certainly don’t want to go through that again.