The Republican primary campaign revealed (or rather reestablished) that Donald Trump is a bigot and a sexist and a creep. In fairness, this was not entirely a testament to fearless journalism; Trump happily exhibited all of these behaviors in front of live television cameras week after week. But reporters and campaigns did bring incidents of bigotry, sexism, and creepiness from his past to light, which helped feed the public’s exceedingly negative impression of the GOP’s new standard-bearer.
Despite months of digging, though, they may have only scratched the surface of Trump’s public and private sordidness. Now that he’s effectively secured the Republican Party nomination, we can expect the full details to pour out in the weeks and months ahead.
Before he dropped out of the race, Ted Cruz predicted this would happen. He attributed it to a liberal conspiracy: The media would sit on their most explosive Trump exposés until he’d won the nomination thanks to the invaluable free airtime they’d given him—and then destroy him with a series of damning revelations they’d been waiting to unleash.
Cruz’s suspicions gained a patina of plausibility this past week when The Washington Post resurfaced evidence that, until two decades ago, Trump would bizarrely call reporters posing as one of two fictional publicists (John Miller or John Barron) and brag about his own business and romantic conquests, real and imagined.
Among other things, we learned from the tapes that Republicans have nominated an egomaniac with an Andy Kaufmanesque repertoire and his very own Tony Clifton-style alter egos. But did the media actually hold this story intentionally, to lull Republican voters into nominating Trump before lowering the boom? Some conservatives would like you to believe as much:
This Cruz-inspired grievance is suspiciously convenient for every faction of the fractured right: It works for anti-Trump conservatives wanting to explain why they failed to stop him; for Republican candidates trying to rationalize their 2016 difficulties; and for Trump supporters who’ll be eager come November to lay his general-election failure at the media’s feet.
That means the liberal-media conspiracy will become a central and unquestioned piece of the GOP’s inevitable 2016 revisionism. But everyone on the political right articulating this theory—everyone who knows how campaigns work, at least, and understands their interplay with media—will be consciously perpetuating a myth. And in so doing, they’ll be passing off blame that rightfully belongs to them.
If the pace of damning Trump revelations increases, as I suspect it will, and if these revelations prove stickier than past ones—also a good bet—it will be a perfectly predictable consequence of the way the GOP responded to the Trump threat from the outset. Political reporters have done a pretty good job unearthing the unflattering details of Trump’s past, but they can only do so much on their own. If the media could document everything untoward every candidate had ever done, campaigns and advocacy groups wouldn’t employ opposition researchers. But there’s a reason they do: In general, campaigns outgun and outpace the press at investigating rival candidates (particularly with respect to archival information that can’t be found online, and that requires expertise to obtain and decipher). They have more resources, no daily print deadlines, and no need to worry about impartiality.
For a variety of reasons, the other Republican campaigns and anti-Trump activists did an absolutely abysmal job sifting through his dirty laundry between June 2015 and today. Bad researchers might’ve been part of the problem, but for too long most Republicans mistakenly assumed Trump would collapse on his own—and why bother investigating someone who was sure to implode? They were also inhibited from attacking his wealth (or lack thereof), his tax avoidance, and his barking-mad tax reform plan, because that would contradict fundamental conservative dogma: that taxes are terrible, that they can’t be cut enough, and that the wealthy are wise to pay as little as possible.
Most Republicans were loath to attack Trump in any meaningful way at all, until it was too late, because they didn’t want to alienate the frontrunner and his millions of supporters. Nobody was more guilty of using kid gloves than Cruz, who cynically brown-nosed Trump until the race finally winnowed and pitted the two of them against one another.
It goes without saying that Democrats have none of those perverse incentives to worry about. They will unearth what Republicans missed; they will find what reporters can’t, if they haven’t already. And to the extent that their dossiers overlap, they will release what Republicans withheld. Reporters will happily field this opposition research, run it to ground, and publish it. It isn’t the media that’s been strategically holding fire—it’s the Democrats. They even boast about it.
Exacerbating Trump’s problem going forward, many conservative journalists—including those who would normally serve as loyal foot soldiers for an orthodox Republican nominee and brush aside damning revelations with accusations of liberal bias—are vouchsafing negative Trump stories instead, including the recent spate of pieces about his “flip-flopping” on taxes and other issues. “If Trump was a normal Republican, conservative media would have taken the lead in contesting the flip-flopping charges,” admitted conservative writer Jim Antle.
Instead … conservative outlets were among the quickest to echo the flip-flopper charge.
When news breaks that is superficially bad for Trump, conservative reporters are now as likely as—maybe more likely than!—liberal reporters to immediately to treat the bad-for-Trump news credulously rather than skeptically. … [This is] not the way conservatives would have treated nominees from Reagan to Romney.
So not only will there be more bad press for Trump, but a subset of conservative elites will validate it in a way they would never have validated anti-Cruz journalism if he’d been the nominee. That will lend the Trump exposés more credibility and persuasive force. When Cruz and his fellow media critics note in the coming weeks that the press is rolling out larger Trump bombshells than they ever did in the primary, and that they’re doing more damage, they won’t be wrong. But only the underhanded and gullible ones will allege a conspiracy. Because the truth is, they have only themselves to blame.
Want to know more about the 2016 elections? Check out the latest episode of our politics podcast Primary Concerns: