Several media companies are struggling with how to deal with Donald Trump. He can’t be ignored on ideological grounds—many actual elected Republicans have said far worse things about undocumented immigrants. He can’t be ignored because of paperwork, because for once he filed with the Federal Elections Commission. So now some news outlets, from The Huffington Post to The Wall Street Journal, are trying to disqualify him on the basis of style. This is the silliest excuse of all.
A presidential candidate chainsawed the tax code in a cheesy stunt on Fox News on Tuesday morning, and it wasn’t Donald Trump. It was elected senator and real presidential candidate Rand Paul, boldly going where many many prop comic politicians had gone before. Trump will do appalling things to get our attention—like announce Lindsey Graham's cell phone number—but it would be shocking to see him stoop so low as to wear dad jeans and saw stacks of printer paper in a weird gesture toward manual labor. That’s the problem with trying to find a clear line between a fake candidate like Trump and a real one like Rand. The ideal presidential candidate is a gifted entertainer—one with swagger like George W. Bush, or chill like Barack Obama. There’s not enough time in a cable news hit to say much about policy, so you’ve got to say it with style. Or a chainsaw.
Donald Trump is not some twisted, deformed version of the Republican Party. He’s the purest version of the Fox News-Tea Party incarnation of the GOP. And one of the most amusing things about watching him on the campaign trail is that he obviously is a fan of Roger Ailes's creation. He repeatedly paused during an interview with Washington Post reporter Robert Costa to gaze at Fox News, muttering about an “animal” undocumented immigrant accused of murder. "Look at that guy, look at what he did, killing that beautiful girl. [Expletive] animal,” Trump said. It is exactly what the audience is supposed to think after watching a Fox News segment on undocumented immigrants.
Just as a generation of tormented liberals, media pundits, and late-night comedians devoted themselves to proving Fox News borrows more from entertainment than journalism, a movement is afoot to fight Trump through recategorization. Last week, The Huffington Post announced “we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage.” Trump would be covered as “entertainment” instead. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait,” Huffington Post said. But it’s not like HuffPo is sending a theater critic to cover the candidate. Trump’s comments and campaign strategy are still being covered by the site’s political reporters. There’s just a little “Entertainment” banner sitting over the headline. No SEO was harmed in the statement of this principle.
Closer to the home of the Republican Party, The Wall Street Journal editorial page blasted Trump on Monday, as well as “conservative media elites” who pretend he’s a serious presidential candidate even though he “has barely a passing acquaintance with America’s current policy debates.” Worse, the Journal declared, “As a standard-bearer for conservative ideas, Mr. Trump would likewise be a catastrophe.” But when has that ever disqualified anyone from Republican politics? Writing in defense of Sarah Palin in the Journal in 2010, Norman Podhoretz argued, “True, she seems to know very little about international affairs, but expertise in this area is no guarantee of wise leadership.… What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn.” It's a frequently applied standard. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has a bit of a Sarah Palin problem. One of his advisers explained, “Look, ‘approachable’ is worth its weight in gold in politics. ‘Smart’ is something voters look for in legislators who craft policy. But Scott is preparing hard to talk about every issue.” Palin, of course, was also a governor and a vice presidential candidate before the world figured out knowledge wasn’t her brand.
Last weekend, Trump outraged many when he said John McCain wasn’t a real war hero because he was captured in Vietnam. Refusing to apologize, Trump said McCain lost the presidential race in 2008, and so, “I never liked him as much after that because I don’t like losers.” Who talks like that? Well, for one, a longtime hero of the Journal’s opinion section. CNBC pundit Rick Santelli is credited for kick-starting the Tea Party with an on-air rant in January 2009 against any bailout of homeowners following the financial crisis. Santelli yelled, “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?” Santelli was praised by various conservative commentators in the Journal’s opinion section here, here, here, and here.
The Tea Party's kiss-up-kick-down ethos has been embraced by the GOP over the last six years. Mitt Romney dismissed the 47 percent of Americans who are supposedly moochers. Congressman Paul Ryan used to talk about makers vs. takers. And here is Peggy Noonan, the celebrated Journal columnist and icon of conservative classiness, on Obama in 2011: “He is a loser. And this is America, where nobody loves a loser.” And here, riffing off a New York Post headline in 2012: “America doesn't date losers either.” Trump's criticism of Graham on Tuesday fits in quite well: If Graham worked in the private sector, Trump said, "He wouldn't be rich. He'd be poor."
But in April, the Times reported that the GOP was trying to move past that message:
Republicans’ emphasis on poorer and working-class Americans now represents a shift from the party’s longstanding focus on business owners and “job creators” as the drivers of economic opportunity.This is intentional, Republican operatives said.
Some conservative voters must be feeling whiplash. Conservative media has created certain expectations among the fans. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when someone finally gives the people what they want, the people like it.