The Huffington Post made a big (okay, big in my world) decision about its Donald Trump coverage on Friday. Here it is:
Trump is, without question, an outlandish figure. He says lots of things, many of which aren't true, as loudly as possible. He has shown in the past a willingness to use the media to further his own interests -- whether they are in the business or political worlds. (Trump wrote all about how he manipulated the media for his benefit in "The Art of the Deal.")
It's hard to imagine him in the White House -- particularly given that the same polls that put him at or close to the top of the Republican primary field show him losing badly to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a general election. President Trump? It feels more like a sort-of-funny joke than a serious thing, right?
But. But, but, but. Trump IS at or near the top of most national polls on the Republican field; our Philip Bump found that Trump's polling average in the last five national surveys trails only Jeb Bush.
Sure, lots of that is name ID, which Trump has lots of. But, there's another poll number -- this one from a WaPo/ABC survey -- that suggests Trump's rapid rise isn't solely due to people recognizing his name. Almost 6 in 10 Republicans said they had a favorable opinion of Trump in WaPo-ABC numbers released earlier this week, an almost total reversal from polling done in late May when 65 percent of GOPers had an unfavorable opinion of The Donald.
The totality of Trump's poll numbers suggest that he is tapping into something within the Republican Party -- that he has, almost certainly by chance, hit a nerve with his rhetoric. What that nerve actually is -- and how long Trump can hit it -- is a point of much debate. I've suggested a bunch of theories -- ranging from Trump as a product of our Kardashian culture to Trump as the symbolic middle finger the party base wants to extend toward the party establishment. Lots and lots of other people have offered their own theories.
But the point here is not why Trump is rising. It's that he is (and, really, has.) There is something there for Republican voters when it comes to Trump. I don't really get it. The HuffPo people seem not to either. But, not totally understanding someone's appeal is not any reason to believe it's not really there.
I remember back to 2007, when it became clear that Mike Huckabee, the little-known and lightly-regarded former Arkansas governor, was beginning to pick up real momentum in the presidential race. The sentiment among many in the mainstream media was: "The guy who plays bass and lost all that weight? Come on." Huckabee won Iowa and, if Fred Thompson had dropped from the race before rather than after the South Carolina primary, might have beaten John McCain for the nomination.
No, Trump isn't Huckabee.
Huckabee had held a political office for an extended period of time and, while he put much of the focus on the entertainment side of his candidacy, possessed deeply held beliefs on things like abortion and gay marriage.
But, the central question is the same: Who are we to decide who's serious and who's not in an election? Trump's polling suggests that, whether you like him or not and whether you think his campaign is a sideshow or not, plenty of people who identify as both Republicans and likely voters don't see him that way. It's not up to me, The Washington Post or the Huffington Post to decide the relative merits of people feeling that way. It's our job to understand why they feel that way, analyze how long they might feel that way and figure out what it means for everyone else running for president that they feel that way.
In pushing Trump from "news" to "entertainment", HuffPo is making a value-judgment about his candidacy, yes, but more importantly (and more troubling) a judgement about the people who support that candidacy. While lumping Trump in with reality TV coverage will win HuffPo plenty of plaudits -- including those rare ones from Republicans who want nothing more than to get Trump off the center of the national stage -- it's not the right decision.
What we in the media need to be doing is asking questions about what is behind the Trump surge -- not dismissing it as a joke or totally meaningless or, even, using his candidacy to pull the sort of publicity stunts that we tut-tut at Trump for.