Donald Trump’s unexpected dominance in the Republican presidential polls evokes a tense mélange of outrage and anxiety among his opposition, and understandably so. In response to the endless stream of media coverage on Trump, some of his detractors have called for the floodgates to close entirely, for an end to all coverage and discussion of Trump. This demand certainly has its appeal: one could make the strategic argument that to halt media coverage of Trump would cut off his vital lifeline and at last bring his campaign to a halt; or one could make the more normative argument that Trump amounts to little more than a bullying buffoon, and denying him coverage prevents a trivialization of American political discourse. However, in spite of their intuitive appeal, these two arguments are uninformed and undemocratic, respectively.
The erroneous assumption behind the strategic argument is that Trump is a creature born almost entirely from the womb of mainstream media; that is, the argument goes, Trump’s appeal among conservatives is not so much natural as it is artificial. This assumption is mistaken, but not because media is impotent; it is misguided simply in its absolutizing exaggeration of the role played by media.
For an example of the strategic argument in action, consider the comments of former child-actress Raven-Symoné on The View: “We are the flame. We have to stop talking about him in order for him to go away.” Similarly, in an article titled “The Mainstream Media Should Stop Covering Donald Trump,” the Huffington Post wrote “Most of the journalists covering Trump today seem more like lapdogs than watchdogs…I can tell you that if they do not cover him, he will go away.” It seems recently that one can no longer even mention Trump without being interrupted and informed that speaking of him only furthers his campaign.
To be sure, Trump takes full advantage of this predictable cycle in which he stirs controversy, baits the media into admonishing him, and then lashes back with rhetoric laced with buzzwords such as “political correctness” in order to draw in more conservative voters. But the existence of this relationship doesn’t necessarily make it solely responsible for Trump’s rise.
The political scientist John Sides predicted in the Washington Post back in July, after Trump smeared John McCain’s reputation, that Trump would venture eventually into a “scrutiny phase” with the media that “tends to produce much less favorable coverage and…a permanent decline in the candidate’s poll numbers.” Sides then approvingly quoted the political scientist Matthew Dickinson who predicted that Trump’s “political bubble” would burst once media began to become more critical by “evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public.”
Three months later, at this stage of Trump’s success, this reductionist account of the Trump phenomenon has lost much of its explanatory power, given that he has survived in spite of having been harshly critiqued for the fantastical implausibility and ignorance of his policies and governing expertise. For example, in August, Trump’s dehumanizing and nonsensical plan to carry out mass deportation even drew the ire of conservative favorite Bill O’Reilly during an interview:
You say, well, we got to have mass deportations. That’s not going to happen, because the 14th Amendment says if you’re born here you’re an American and you can’t kick Americans out. And then if you wanted to deport the people already here, each and every one are entitled to due process, and it would take decades to do that and ‘gazillions’ of dollars and the courts would block you at every turn. You must know all that! […] Do you want me to quote you the amendment? If you’re born here, you’re an American, period! Period!
Many also thought Trump’s allure would be diminished after his performance in the first Republican debate, but as Michael Tomasky put it in The New York Review of Books, Trump has proven to be a Rasputin-like figure, having survived countless predictions of his political death. Altogether, the endurance of Trump’s campaign against these pessimistic and now outdated predictions points to a deeper reason for Trump’s ascendency. Borrowing further from Tomasky, at length:
Is Trump not the logical culmination of where Republican politics have been headed for many years now, going back to the Clinton and Bush presidencies, but especially during the tenure of Barack Obama? Two qualities more than any others have driven conservatism in our time. The first is cultural and racial resentment, felt by the mostly older and very white population the GOP increasingly represents — resentment against a fast-changing, more openly sexual America, as well as against dark-skinned immigrants, and White House occupants, and gay people and political correctness and the ‘moocher class’ and all the rest. The second is what we might call spectacle — the unrelenting push toward a rhetorical style ever more gladiatorial and ever more outraged (and outrageous), driven initially by talk-radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and now reproduced on websites, podcasts, and Twitter feeds too numerous to mention….Trump is conservative resentment and spectacle made flesh.
Because the assumption of the artificiality of Trump’s ascendance fails to properly account for Trump’s natural harmony with the Republican narrative, any wishful thinking that simply forbidding coverage will fatally harm his campaign is missing the point. Trump is not a rogue pathogen or tumor that can be excised once and for all, but rather a prominent petal of an American political disease in full bloom.
The deeper problem is therefore not Trump himself but what he reveals as endemic to contemporary American politics: a radical conservative resentment that hopes to assert itself via a strongman aristocrat such as Trump, a new Leviathan with a will to take on the impossible tasks of deporting millions of immigrants, building a massive wall across the border, and flirting with the idea of deporting American Muslims, all the while fighting against “political correctness,” in an attempt to reverse the tide of recent history. Trump represents for his supporters a potential protector within the social realm, which explains why his slightly more progressive economic policy and delusional approach to foreign policy draw little criticism from his base.
American politics has become for the Trump entourage, among others, a matter of strength and virility in a spectacular conflict. Trump and much of the radical right might nod in agreement with the political theorist Carl Schmitt who considered all politics as reducible to a friend-enemy distinction — that is, politics as conflict. And although Schmitt certainly captured an important aspect of the political, one would be remiss to forget the communicative, the collaborative component of democratic politics that makes it democratic at all. To forward the political argument to end all coverage of Trump, or as much of it as possible, would continue to play into the very game of politics as conflict in lieu of democratic communication — a game Trump is particularly skilled at.
According to John Dewey, arguably the American philosopher, what makes our system democratic is less the vote itself, than the conversations it sparks among friends, colleagues, and strangers that allow us to test our political hypotheses against each other and refine our political positions. This process prods us to reach more legitimate conclusions than we would find on our own. The unrelenting radicalism both within the left and the right provoked by Trump and his contingent pushes this democratic ideal further and further out of our reach.
If America indeed aims for democratic virtue in the face of a growing contingent in favor of strongman politics of insults and flair, then the solution is not the end of all coverage of Trump, but rather better coverage. We are in need of more extended exchanges of arguments between citizens on right and left, following the lead of Senator Bernie Sanders, who opened his speech at Liberty University with these exact sentiments:
I came here today because I believe from the bottom of my heart that it is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in civil discourse. Too often in our country, and I think both sides bear responsibility for this…there is too much shouting at each other, there is too much making fun of each other…[It] is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue. And it is important to see where if possible, we can find common ground.
One might say Trump embodies the negation of these principles. He thus represents an issue as real as the other issues the left would rather be discussing, from climate change to Black Lives Matter. To ignore him is to falter on two fronts: in speaking nothing more of Trump, however blissful it may sound, one skirts the deeper issue at hand and further perverts American politics into a show of strength and brutality rather than one of dialogic nuance and authority.
Truman Chen, a junior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.