Last week's shenanigans concerning John McCain's heroism (here, here, and here), Lindsey Graham's cellphone number (here, here, and here), and a whistlestop to Laredo for a border inspection (here, here, and here) confirmed Donald Trump's position as the leading newsmaker of Campaign 2016 for the season to date.
Trump was the Story of the Week last week (30 mins vs 23 for Sandra Bland, the Texas jail inmate found hanged). He was the lead story on NBC Nightly News last Monday and Tuesday and on CBS Evening News on Monday.
Here are the statistics for the summer so far (data represent coverage since the beginning of June through last Friday, July 24th, on the weekday nightly newscasts of the three broadcast networks):
-- Coverage of Donald Trump now accounts for more than half of Campaign 2016 coverage on all three newscasts combined (60 minutes out of 114 -- 52%)
-- NBC continues to cover Trump much more heavily than its two rivals, both in absolute time (35 mins vs CBS 16, ABC 8) and in proportion of Campaign 2016 coverage (62% vs CBS 53%, ABC 31%)
-- NBC is the overall leader in Campaign 2016 coverage of all types (56 mins vs CBS 31, ABC 27) yet its emphasis on Trump has not been at the expense of other aspects of the campaign. The three newscasts are closer to parity in total time for non-Trump-related campaign stories (NBC 21 mins vs CBS 15, ABC 19)
So, have the networks, and NBC in particular, made the correct journalistic decision to treat Trump as the main campaign event of the summer?
Huffington Post, famously, disagrees with the network newscasts, deciding that Trump belongs in the same category -- "Entertainment" -- as the Kardashians and The Bachelorette and has removed him from its "Politics" section. At PressThink, Jay Rosen endorses HuffPo for its "sensible proposition." This is how Rosen understands its stance: "There's a different logic driving Trump's campaign. So we re-classified it."
As for me, I dissent from my friend Professor Rosen and the Huffington decision. I side with the networks and the leadership position taken by NBC News.
Clearly, the rationale for NBC's decision could be based on nothing more than the network's institutional memory of Trump as a ratings magnet when the star of its primetime reality TV Apprentice franchise. Add in a sprinkling of corporate animus as NBC-Universal prepares to face off with the billionaire in a court case over its decision to cancel Trump's Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. Assume that Trump's candidacy will eventually self-destruct, and you can imagine the suits at Rockefeller Plaza taking extra pleasure from watching it do so in a hefty blaze of publicity, courtesy of their own news division.
Be that as it may -- crass ratings grabbing and potential schadenfreude aside -- I have two civic-minded arguments for agreeing that Trump warrants the prominence he has been afforded so far this campaign season.
First, to dismiss Trump's Presidential candidacy as a sideshow to the Republican primary contest proper because he is unelectable, and because his policy platforms are facetious, is to misconstrue the political function of the primary process.
Granted, eventually, the primaries culminate in the party's selection of its nominee -- but only eventually. Equally important, and preceding the selection itself, every four years the primary contest functions as a re-evaluation of the relative strengths of the various components of a party's coalition: a proving ground for those positions that have acquired more salience, a waste disposal system for those that no longer resonate, and the establishment of the pecking order for the coalition's constituent sociological and ideological groupings.
In his buffoonery, Trump appears to be the caricature of a Republican that the imaginings of an Occupy Wall Street protestor might dream up: a know-nothing nativist, ranting about Mexican rapists…an unreconstructed chauvinist, organizing televised contests of breast-enhanced bikini-clad beauty queens…a workplace nightmare of a boss, delighting so much in employee insecurity that he makes You're Fired his catchphrase…the embodiment of the inequality of wealth distribution in this second Gilded Age, insisting that a plutocrat, and only a plutocrat, is fit to rule this republic.
Yet it turns out that Trump's participation in the primary contest is a test. How much is he a mere caricature? How much does his worldview represent a significant faction of the Republican coalition? NBC's political director Chuck Todd is certain that Trump's support is not imaginary. He describes them as voters "who feel marginalized themselves." Trump's bombast, for his supporters, represents the plain-speaking of one unconstrained by mainstream rules of political correctness, of one wealthy enough not to have to curb his tongue to kowtow to fat-cat contributors.
It is one of the failings of the networks' nightly newscasts that they find Presidential primary politics easier to cover than Congressional legislative politics. The large personalities of the stump are so much more vivid than the corridors of the Capitol. Were that not the case, the networks' political correspondents would already have reported on the extent of the influence of the reactionary populists to whom Trump appeals. They may "feel marginalized" but their marginalization does not exist in fact: they have sufficient veto power within the House Republican caucus that legislation that could have attracted a bipartisan majority -- on immigration, for example, or carbon emissions, or infrastructure funding -- never came to a vote.
Trump's supporters may represent a base that is indispensible to Republicans to maintain control of the House, yet their attitudes may be so toxic that they constitute an insurmountable obstacle to assembling a national majority to gain control of the White House. Such are the trade-offs of coalition building. And he embodies them.
Second, Trump's candidacy represents a crossroads in conservatism.
It is one of the perennial conundrums of contemporary television news: why -- when the electorate is evenly divided left and right, Democrat and Republican -- is the conservative-targeted FOX News Channel so much more successful than MSNBC, its liberal-progressive counterpart?
Leaving aside the question of whether FNC produces more compelling programing, delivered by a more accomplished roster of talking heads, the disparity between the sizes of their audiences also tells us about the asymmetry of contemporary politics.
Groups belonging to the left-leaning electoral coalition enjoy a diverse, and non-overlapping, assortment of media outlets for self-expression: many are not part of the news media, but belong in the spheres of entertainment, lifestyle and ethnic identity instead. Thus MSNBC's left-leaning political programing is marginal and only partially representative of the coalition's cultural identity.
The diversity of the right-leaning electoral coalition, on the other hand, is represented much more readily by political markers. Sociological and cultural formations on the right find an easy shorthand in hot-button public policy issues: the right-to-life, the Second Amendment, border security, the War on Christmas, suspicion of Islam, global warming skepticism and so on. To be sure, all of these (except the War on Christmas) are active political issues -- and therefore exist in the sweet spot of news coverage for a cable network like FNC -- but they are also markers of an identity that is cultural rather than political to the component groups of conservatism.
FNC is therefore a news channel and a cultural one, comprehensively, for conservatives in a way that MSNBC cannot mirror. Put another way, contemporary conservatism is simultaneously a political formation and a cultural one. As a consequence, it has spawned an entire media-industrial complex -- not just FNC, but talk radio, and book publishing, and the lecture circuit -- and a splendidly lucrative one at that.
This is where Trump comes in. The logical conclusion of conservatism-as-culture rather than conservatism-as-politics is that it creates -- and attracts -- celebrities. None is more adept at exploiting that spotlight than Trump. While his stylings may not be designed to appeal to voters but to audiences instead, his logic turns out not to be "different" at all, as HuffPo would put it, but mainstream conservative.
This is the second reason why Trump's participation in the Republican primary contest is not only newsworthy but politically important. Trump is exposing the contradiction that lies at the heart of contemporary conservatism. Is it a political movement, whose goal is governing? Or is it a cultural movement, whose goal is maximizing audiences by offering a sense of identity to an embattled minority resentful against a changing world? If the latter, Trump's inimitable mixture of bombast, outrageousness, polarization, insult, and egoism fits right in. If the former, the electoral necessities of outreach, bridge-building, the big tent, and constructive policy proposals make Trump anathema.
Coverage of the campaign has not yet reached the point of choosing nominees, let alone the process of choosing a President, with its conventions and debates and opinion polls and swing states. When those phases do arrive, Trump will be old news.
In the meantime, the Republican Party is engaged in resolving these two crucial contradictions. First, does it jettison its reactionary nativist-populist minority -- at the risk of losing control of the House of Representatives -- in order to have a better chance at winning the White House by detoxifying its image? Second, does it decouple from the embattled, resentful conservatism that is such a powerful and lucrative media phenomenon? Does it present itself as a majority party of government rather than a minority party of culture?
The prominence of Trump proves that these questions are currently much more important than the question of who the eventual nominee might be.
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