It is no coincidence that at this point of confluence between the newspaper industry’s decline and Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, conservative newspaper editorial boards are discovering that the Hillary Clinton of right-wing fever dreams bears almost no resemblance to reality.
The Arizona Republic, which has “never endorsed a Democrat over a Republican for president” in 126 years, now finds that “Clinton has the temperament and experience to be president.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, which “has supported Republicans for president for a century,” admits that “Clinton is a known commodity with a proven track record of governing.” And the Dallas Morning News, which “has not recommended a Democrat for the nation’s highest office since before World War II,” lets on that “Clinton has spent years in the trenches doing the hard work needed to prepare herself to lead our nation.”
These are apt and welcome admissions against ideological interest, motivated explicitly by Trump’s moral ugliness and unfitness for the presidency. But their timing is heavily suggestive of a lesson learned too late: that we should be faithful to reality in criticizing ideological foes and not tolerate others’ efforts to demean and slander them out of convenience.
These editorials, written by experienced conservative journalists, are implicit admissions that the overwhelming majority of horrifying, conspiratorial things conservatives and Republicans have said about Clinton over the years—from accusing her of murdering Vince Foster, to orchestrating and covering up the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, to endangering U.S. national security with her email setup—have been instrumentalist agitprop. Liberals have understood all along that Clinton’s depiction in right-wing circles is a grotesque caricature. But not everybody has been in on the scam. And it’s troubling that a true-to-life rendering only emerged now, six weeks before an election in which the very integrity of American democracy is at stake.
This is not to hang the threat that Trump might win on the editorial boards of the Republic, Enquirer, and Morning News. The reach and influence of newspaper endorsements has eroded steadily in recent years as media markets have fragmented, politics has polarized, and big city papers have floundered and disappeared.
That we have reached the nadir of newspaper influence at the same moment when the Republican Party has enabled and normalized the racist authoritarian candidate who coopted it is also no coincidence. Conservatives in particular have strayed from traditional sources of news in the internet and Fox News age, leaving most mass media without the clout or trust to steer consumers away from panderers and conspiracy theorists.
Even before newspaper editorials shrunk into vestigial artifacts of a bygone era, their impact was self-limiting. Editorial boards tend to have durable leanings which undermine their persuasive power over partisan politics. Conservative editorial boards usually endorse Republican candidates, liberal ones endorse Democrats, and only in man-bites-dog scenarios, in which they depart from their own in-house orthodoxies, do any minds stand to get changed.
Man is biting dog now, but it is a tiny, shrunken man and the dog is rabid and enormous.
It is partly a failure of today’s media that the public views Clinton only slightly less unfavorably than it views Trump, and sees her as far more dishonest than he. But it is also a failure that goes back a quarter-century. Clinton is flawed in plenty of real ways, but she is also the victim of a hate debt that began piling up in the 1990s, undisrupted by most conservative public figures.
It’s hard to offer too much credit to those conservatives coming forward now, when she is the only thing standing between the country and an authoritarian takeover, to admit the blindingly obvious truth: that Clinton is a normal, competent politician, while Trump is a tremendous threat to U.S. democracy and global security. People’s opinions of Clinton are fixed, and conservatives don’t get their information from newspaper editorials anymore, so coming clean this late can only have limited impact.
The time, in other words, for the Republic to admit, “The vehemence of some of the anti-Clinton attacks strains credulity,” or for the Morning News to explain that Clinton’s “real shortcomings … pale in comparison to the litany of evils some opponents accuse her of,” has long since passed.
Even if few grassroots GOP voters will read these editorials and change their views, my hope is that they inspire other #NeverTrump conservatives to make similar admissions, which will in turn be reflected in the broader media coverage of a campaign in which Clinton is routinely on the receiving end of violence-drenched rhetoric aimed at people who have been convinced she’s a traitor.
Most years you don’t count on your political nemeses to save the world from fascism. But every now and again you might. And when you do, it’s best if your fellow citizens aren’t laboring under decades of propaganda, some of them convinced that fascism might be a better way to run America.