tyndall report posts
Issues? What Issues?Issues? What Issues?
Here are the network-by-network trends (in minutes of airtime) for issues coverage for each Presidential year since 1988 on the three broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts. Issues coverage is differentiated from candidate coverage thus: it takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates' platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.
The amount of time spent on issues coverage represents the attempt by television news to establish a political agenda that is driven by the perceived problems that the country faces rather than those talking points that the candidates select to promote their own causes.
This year's absence of issues is an accurate portrayal of the turf on which the election is being played out. It has turned into a referendum on the candidates' fitness for office, hinging on attributes such as honesty, trustworthiness, judgment, temperament, stamina, good health, comportment and boorishness. If the candidates are not talking about the issues, the news media would be misrepresenting the contest to do so.
With just two weeks to go, issues coverage this year has been virtually non-existent. Of the 32 minutes total, terrorism (17 mins) and foreign policy (7 mins) towards the Middle East (Israel-ISIS-Syria-Iraq) have attracted some attention. Gay rights, immigration and policing have been mentioned in passing.
No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates' terms, not on the networks' initiative.
year (mins) Total ABC CBS NBC
1988 117 36 40 42
1992 210 112 38 60
1996 98 29 53 17
2000 130 45 39 46
2004 203 40 119 44
2008 220 41 119 66
2012 114 13 70 32
2016 (YTD) 32 8 16 8]]>Calling Roger's Bluff & Poetic Justice at FOX News ChannelCalling Roger's Bluff & Poetic Justice at FOX News Channel
Until now -- during the ancien regime when Murdoch Pere held the reins, not his boys -- Ailes has been able to assert an exemption of impunity based on a claim that he is the indispensable man at FNC: without Ailes at the helm, the channel's golden formula would be lost and the ongoing torrent of revenue from 21st Century Fox's cash cow would dry up.
Enforcing this status of impunity has meant that in the past Ailes has persuaded his Fox bosses to write checks attached to non-disclosure-agreements to make pesky problems, such as Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit, go away. Ailes' clout has not only protected his own position but has also provided protection -- and thereby purchased the enduring loyalty -- of the key on-air stars of his operation.
So, has Ailes been bluffing all this time? Can FNC, in truth, continue successfully without him at the helm? Can the Brothers Murdoch afford to resist his willful claims of impunity?
If yes, then he will have been an important man for FNC (a Roone Arledge style figure at ABC News; perhaps a Ted Turner at CNN) but not an indispensable one. If yes, FNC will turn out to have a corporate culture rather than a cult of personality, and Ailes will be seen to have been rightly laid low by his own hubris.
However, there are two strong arguments that Ailes is not bluffing and that the Brothers Murdoch would be unwise to jettison him.
First, unlike their right-wing-tabloid father, the next generation of Murdochs does not have that automatic grasp of the reactionary-populist-nativist-nationalist worldview that Rupert and Roger share. As such the brothers may fail to appreciate how fully-formed and coherent the Ailes vision is, and how skilled a television producer he is at articulating that vision. In other words, they may not realize how difficult Ailes is to replace.
Second, Ailes is not just a television producer par excellence, he is also a brilliant manager of personnel. The remarkable thing about the FNC line-up is how stable it has been throughout all the years of its success (only Glenn Beck has parted company after becoming a star). Ailes -- by a combination of inspiring loyalty and instilling fear -- has prevented other channels, or other media outlets, from poaching his talent. The glue that holds that line-up together is personal loyalty to Ailes rather than to the corporate brand.
The poetic justice of this moment cannot be overstated: the very week when Ailes' Nixonian vision for the conservative movement and the Republican Party is realized, is the week of his (probable) downfall. Donald Trump, a populist champion of the white working class, an unreconstructed pre-feminist beauty pageant entrepreneur and reality TV star, has his moment of triumph, the apotheosis of FNC's tabloid brand of conservatism, a repudiation of the corporate county-club austerity-minded elite alternative.
Further: given the unreconstructed stereotypes of the coverage and presentation of the genders on Ailes' FNC -- crusty curmudgeonly white men paired with miniskirted leggy blondes -- it is absolute poetic justice that the one woman Ailes allowed to cross those gender lines is the woman who delivers the coup de grace. Megyn Kelly may be blonde and leggy but she is also independent, articulate and self-assured. She turns out to be the exception to the wall of loyalty from FNC's on-air talent in the face of the Carlson lawsuit.
Ailes, the king at the crossroads of conservative politics and conservative media: usurped from his media throne at the moment of his political triumph; punished for his pre-feminist chauvinism by the only woman for whom he disavowed that chauvinism in order to elevate as a star.]]>Let the Trump Circus ContinueLet the Trump Circus Continue
Yet taken as a whole, this primary season turns out -- with one exception -- to be par for the course.
Yes, coverage of Campaign 2016 during the first four months of the year has occupied the lion's share of the newshole of the broadcast networks' weekdays nightly newscasts (27% of all coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC combined -- 1284 mins out 4750). And yes, coverage of Donald Trump's candidacy has occupied the lion's share of that campaign coverage (26% --- 333 mins out of 1284).
But those statistics should be put in historical context. This is the eighth primary season in Tyndall Report's database, whose first Presidential race was Campaign 1988. Those eight divide into two categories: those with open primaries in both parties, and those in which an incumbent President was running for re-election.
Thus 2016 is akin to 2008, 2000, and 1988 in its two-pronged capacity to make major headlines during the primary season; it is unlike the one-sided contests of 2012, 2004, 1996, and 1992 (although incumbent George HW Bush did receive a spirited challenge from Pat Buchanan that year).
Here are the totals for three-network campaign coverage for the primary season (the first four months) for each contest:
1988 -- 1100 mins
1992 -- 844 mins
1996 -- 587 mins
2000 -- 705 mins
2004 -- 739 mins
2008 -- 1492 mins
2012 -- 736 mins
2016 -- 1284 mins
Thus 2016, even with the oversized presence of Donald Trump, turns out to be no outlier at all but roughly comparable to both 1988 and 2008. At this stage in 2008, the prominence of the two political parties was reversed compared with this year. This year, specifically partisan coverage has split in favor of the Republican Party (564 mins vs 239 for the Democrats); eight years ago the numbers were reversed (509 mins for the Democrats vs 228 for the GOP).
If this year is the Year of the Donald (333 mins), with Hillary Rodham Clinton (89 mins), Bernie Sanders (87 mins), and Ted Cruz (71 mins) playing back-up roles, then 2008 at this stage was already shaping up to be the Year of Obama (243 mins), with Hillary Rodham Clinton (193 mins) and John McCain (138 mins) as back-ups.
So the data so far for 2016 reveal that its coverage falls easily within historical norms. The anomaly turns out to be 2000 when, in retrospect, the networks' political teams seem to have inexplicably dropped the ball. Instead of the election, the first four months of that year were dominated by 440 minutes devoted to the custody dispute involving Elian Gonzalez, the refugee boy kept from his father in Cuba by his dead mother's relatives in Miami.
So Elian then was more newsworthy than Donald now.
(By the way, the major non-campaign-related news stories of the first four months of 2016 have been the Brussels bombings -- 132 mins, the winter weather -- 125 mins, the Zika virus -- 122 mins, the Flint water supply scandal -- 86 mins, and the war in Syria -- 68 mins)
In the end, of course, Campaign 2000 was, too, heavily covered, but only after all the campaigning was finished and all the votes were cast. The year that began with Elian in Florida, ended in Florida too, with hanging chads. Of all the eight Presidential campaigns in our database, Campaign 2000 -- the one with the least circuslike atmosphere during the primary season -- was the election whose result was least transparent, brought least resolution, and provoked most acrimony.
If the tabloidesque excesses of the current Trump-dominated season are the price to be paid for a contest that will, in retrospect, seem to have been exhaustively covered and decided in an open, informed and democratic fashion, then: Let the Circus Continue!]]>Donald Trump, King of All Earned MediaDonald Trump, King of All Earned Media
"Earned" is the media-business nickname for publicity and promotion given to a political candidate that is not paid for. It mostly refers to journalism: the dissemination of campaign messages through news outlets rather than through paid advertising.
Needless to say, Donald Trump is the King of All Earned Media.
To take just one example, look at coverage of the Trump Campaign on the old-school nightly newscasts of the three broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC combined), whose average audiences each evening total some 25 million viewers. So far this year, Trump has attracted more airtime (175 mins) then all other candidates combined (Hillary Rodham Clinton 60; Bernie Sanders 44; Ted Cruz 32; Marco Rubio 14 and so on -- data through the end of last week, March 11th, weekdays only).
Because "earned" media is not bought-and-sold like advertising, such coverage is sometimes dubbed "free." This is misleading since it implies that news outlets just give their airtime away. Of course they don't. Trump gets coverage because he provides the raw ingredients for compelling television. As Les Moonves, the network boss, joked: Donald Trump is "damn good for CBS." Trump has worked for his earned media. He earned it fair and square. Let's count the ways.
1. News: Not to belabor the obvious, a phenomenon gets more coverage when it is newsworthy, when it breaks the mold. Trump's candidacy is not only unprecedented -- his lack of traditional credentials, his disdain for accepted civil discourse, his cursory interest in public policy issues -- it may also precipitate the disintegration of a major political party. That's news.
2. Soundbite: Trump understands that the threshold for what makes headlines is different for political journalism than for other news beats. With other types of breaking news, reporters deliver the underlying details of a newsworthy event and then seek soundbites in reaction to it. The soundbite is secondary. In politics, an inflammatory or outrageous soundbite is newsworthy per se. Trump, with his years of practice as a reality TV character, knows how to say something that grabs headlines.
3. Discipline: For a traditional candidate, an attribute prized above all others is Message Disciple -- the Bernie-Sanders-like ability to return any question, any issue, back to the underlying core principles of his candidacy. Trump's discipline belongs to a different category. Campaigning as a Strong Man who will Make America Great Again, Trump does not rely on a core message, but rather on a core persona. Persona Discipline makes him stay in character, whatever happens to come out of his mouth. Message Discipline makes for boring television, because it is so predictable. Persona Discipline permits that unpredictable outrageous soundbite.
4. Access: With the proviso that Trump persuades producers to bend the rules for him, by allowing him the phone it in without a video feed, Trump combines the promise of freewheeling, unpredictable soundbites with a openness to be interviewed live on air in formats that a more buttoned-down candidate would consider risky. Having dispensed with the shackles of Message Discipline, Trump feels free to riff on the entire range of topical news developments that his rivals might shy away from for fear of ill-informed gaffes. Thus Trump is golden for MSNBC's Morning Joe and all the Sunday morning interview shows.
5. Innovation: On the network nightly newscasts, the traditional formats for covering a Presidential campaign are the horse race -- the jockeying for position of the rival candidates as they face various electoral hurdles -- and the issues, their respective policy platforms, which can be compared and contrasted apples-to-apples. These formats allow TV news to maintain an approximate parity and neutrality with regard to all candidates, with the reporter's job being to observe them as they go about the business of campaigning, with get-out-the-vote efforts and paid media. Trump's campaign is not out there, to be observed by TV news. On the contrary, TV news is the medium through which it is being presented. That old position of parity and neutrality is untenable; the new one is participation and cooptation. Trump is not apples-to-apples with his rivals, but apples-to-Orange, to coin a phrase.
6. Rallies: In recent weeks, we have caught a glimpse of how the Trump Campaign will unfold in the months to come. As the feasibility of his candidacy becomes more apparent, the opposition to it is becoming more organized. Trump's rallies were always potentially newsworthy events, since his speeches are largely extemporaneous, relying on scant Message Discipline, and the crowd-manipulation skills he learned with Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania. An outrageous soundbite or interaction with supporters was always likely to occur (remember his "Pussy" scold of a female fan). Now, however, there is the possibility that more serious news will break out, as protestors grow more vociferous and supporters more combative in response. Trump seems to be beefing up stadium security at his events. Imagine if he starts dressing his security in uniform shirts, dark-colored shirts. Now that would be newsworthy.
Donald Trump's candidacy is a threat to the Republican Party establishment. Obviously, it threatens to dismantle key components of the GOP policy platform: abandoning free trade in favor of tariffs, imposing a religious test for entry into the country, ordering mass deportations, abnegating the Geneva Convention on war crimes. His candidacy also threatens the party establishment in another way: the entire industry of political operatives -- the consultants, the fundraisers, the pollsters, the microtargeters, the oppo-reasearch ad-makers -- sees its business model disappear if elections can be won on the basis of Earned Media alone.]]>Why Is Campaign 2016 So Newsworthy?Why Is Campaign 2016 So Newsworthy?
Andrew Tyndall2016-02-11T08:56:22-08:00only 246 minutes of coverage on the three broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts during January. That is far less than the last three election-year Januaries.
Here is the sequence for the month of January for the last eight cycles: 2016 -- 246; 2012 -- 363; 2008 -- 520; 2004 -- 324; 2000 -- 211; 1996 -- 70; 1992 -- 107; 1988 -- 245.
What has happened? Can our senses be deceiving us? It feels like the news is all-election all-the-time. So why the lull?
Never fear, politics fans. The January number is merely an aberration of the calendar. This year the Iowa caucuses were not held until February 1st so there was no actual voting in January 2016. By contrast, in 2012 and 2008, not only had the caucusgoers of Iowa met before January ended, but votes had been cast in the primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina and Florida too.
The first week of February has already logged an additional 117 minutes of campaign coverage. We are well on track to continue the trend of 2015 (see the Year in Review 2015), which was the second heaviest penultimate year of campaign coverage in our database, second only to the build up to Campaign 2008.
This increased attention paid to the Presidential election campaign appears, at first sight, to represent an increased interest in politics. Yet it coincides with two contradictory countervailing trends. First, the interest in non-Presidential electoral politics (the mid-term elections, statewide Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns) has actually fallen at the same time as Presidential coverage has increased (see the Year in Review 2014). Second, coverage of actual politics (rather than electoral politics), namely the business of the federal government in its various branches, has also fallen (trend data here).
So, the enormous attention paid to the Presidential campaign represents a shift in the mix of political coverage rather than an increased interest in politics per se. So much interest in who is going to be the next President! So little interest in what the President does as soon as he (or she?) enters the Oval Office!
I draw two conclusions. One concerns the structure of the permanent Presidential campaign, which is that of a Reality TV contest, with easily identifiable, oversized, caricaturish personalities, a format that is tailor-made for television. The second suggests that the Presidential campaign is not just about politics: in addition, it stands proxy for the vast socio-economic and demographic disruptions that are roiling the nation, dramatizing issues of far greater scope than the mere power of the federal government.
Think of the most newsworthy of all Presidential elections, Campaign 2008 -- McCain, Rodham Clinton, Obama -- in which a trio of oversized personalities represented issues as huge as the legacy of the Vietnam War, the impact of the Feminist Movement, the rise of multiethnic multiculturalism.
The same, I suspect, is happening now during Campaign 2016, with its own new cast of oversized personalities, and its own set of overarching abstract themes that television journalism has a hard time covering directly, precisely because of their abstract nature, but is able to refer to symbolically, via the coverage of the candidates.
Here, finally, we find, embedded in the dramatic structure of a Reality TV contest, a forum where we can grapple with the societal resonance of the War on Terrorism following 9/11, of the Financial Collapse of 2008, of Globalization & Immigration. Here finally, the inchoate forces of the nativist Tea Party and the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street find their embodiment, in the figures of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
And who knows? If the fate of the Democratic nomination turns out to be decided by a contest over who wins the African-American vote, Campaign 2016 may be the vehicle by which Black Lives Matter, too, enters the political mainstream.]]>Campaign 2016 Coverage: Annual Totals for 2015Campaign 2016 Coverage: Annual Totals for 2015
2. The annual total of 1031 minutes is higher than any other penultimate year of the last seven Presidential campaigns, except for 2007 (1991 = 146; 1995 = 294; 1999 = 339; 2003 = 167; 2007 = 1072; 2011 = 790).
3. NBC Nightly News has covered Campaign 2016 more heavily than its rivals (417 mins vs ABC 324, CBS 290). NBC spent most time on both the Republican race (278 mins vs ABC 235, CBS 189) and the Democratic race (104 mins vs ABC 76, CBS 69).
4. The Republican race is more than twice as newsworthy than the Democratic race (701 mins vs 248 -- with 82 mins of coverage with no partisan focus). Besides the fact that there are many more Republican candidates than Democratic ones, the GOP debates have made much more news than the Democrats' (123 mins vs 25).
5. Donald Trump is by far the most newsworthy storyline of Campaign 2016, alone accounting for almost a third of all coverage (327 mins or 32%), more than the entire Democratic contest combined. The other GOP candidates, in order of prominence, were Jeb Bush (57 mins), Ben Carson (57), Marco Rubio (22).
6. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been the second most newsworthy candidate (121 mins), with an additional 88 mins devoted to the controversy over her e-mails as Secretary of State and 29 mins to the investigations into the Benghazi Consulate attack. The second most newsworthy Democrat was a non-candidate: 73 mins on Joe Biden's decision not to run.
7. Noticeably under-covered have been the current second-placed candidate in each party's national opinion polls: Ted Cruz has attracted only 21 mins, Bernie Sanders only 20 mins.
NOTE: this post originally contained Year-to-Date numbers for the first eleven months of 2015. Those prelminary data have been updated and replaced by these annual totals. The addition of the final month made no material change to these findings.]]>Donald Trump Poses Looming Loyalty Test for FOX News ChannelDonald Trump Poses Looming Loyalty Test for FOX News Channel
Andrew Tyndall2015-08-19T09:55:56-08:00The Hollywood Reporter is cross-posted here.
"Are we in a reality show?" asked NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on August 16th. "No. This is not a reality show. This is the real deal," replied Donald Trump.
Trump was dissembling. Of course, we are in a reality show. Trump's answer implied a binary: either he is a reality TV character or his candidacy is authentic. The choice is false: his candidacy is authentic and the campaign is structured according to the principles of reality television.
Just as in reality TV shows, modern Presidential campaigns are a series of ordeals that place candidates under such a spotlight that we can glimpse their true character under stress. So far in Campaign 2016, only Trump's persona -- as the nativist populist with no time for political correctness -- has captured the imagination, which is why he has dominated coverage to date. The debates are the winnowing process for Trump's main rivals to hone their alternate personas.
For the mainstream television news media -- the broadcast networks and CNN -- this reality TV structure offers a safe haven in increasingly polarized times. The mainstream craves a political position of impartiality. The highly partisan mid-term elections of 2014, for example, held no appeal for the weekday nightly newscasts of the broadcast networks, attracting only 133 minutes of coverage all year, fewer than any of the previous six midterm cycles. By contrast, in the first seven months of 2015 (some eighteen months before Election Day), Campaign 2016 already has attracted 242 minutes.
The emergence of Trump is golden. So far this August, the three broadcast networks' supposedly-august Sunday morning political shows all have waived their usual insistence that interview subjects appear on camera. Trump was allowed to phone it in. The skilled reality-TV performer has an ear for the outrageous soundbite, all the better to lead a newscast. He understands that confrontation makes compelling television, thus freeing journalists to be less mealy-mouthed in their interviewing.
Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly, when she confronted Trump about his history of sexism, must have been aware that reality TV can make a star of the panel member as easily as of the contestant. For Kelly, this was her Simon Cowell moment. The resulting feud was priceless: Trump's vision of a bleeding Kelly; the journalistic high ground seized by Chris Wallace, FNC's Sunday anchor, refusing to accept Trump's phone-in; a conciliatory call between Trump and Roger Ailes, FNC's chief; Trump's reappearance on FNC programs as Kelly took her vacation.
Vince McMahon could not have choreographed a finer brouhaha with his WWE wrestlers.
Reality TV false-feuds aside, FNC may face a serious issue arising from Trump's candidacy that the mainstream networks can happily ignore. The problem stems from FNC's dual role: a media enterprise whose objective is to maximize ratings and a political enterprise whose objective is to maximize the electoral prospects of the Republican Party. It has not happened yet, but the day may come when FNC's media ambitions and its political ambitions collide. It could be that Trump's brand of nativist, chauvinist populism that drives ratings might turn out to be toxic to the Republicans' prospects of assembling an electoral majority.
If such a day comes, FNC may have to decide whether its loyalty is to its viewers or to Republican would-be rulers. My bet is that Ailes, if forced, prefers to make reality TV rather than real governments.]]>Donald Trump Hogs Headlines -- And Quite Right TooDonald Trump Hogs Headlines -- And Quite Right Too
Andrew Tyndall2015-07-29T06:09:31-08:00here, 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.]]>