Written by Matt Harkins
Since last Wednesday, I’ve been watching the dust settle as society comes to terms with the fact that “Donald Trump” and “presumptive nominee” are now being used in the same sentence. It was impossible and useless to begin the process of making a serious attempt to pick up the pieces of a shattered political paradigm. The latter half of last week was been devoted to exploring and finding my bearings in this new world I found myself dropped into overnight.
I’ve immersed myself in the offerings of legacy news mediums, amateur blogs, news aggregators, conspiracy theory forums, Twitter, Facebook, etc., groping around for a stable surface to lean on. Although I think I know now which direction is up and which is down, I haven’t found anything to stand on except for my own two feet.
Critiquing the media is one of the easiest things in the world to do, and I’ve done it plenty of times in my column. The laziness, sloppiness, pretension, and thoughtlessness I observed in various press pens was among the most shocking things I observed in my close-encounters-of-the-campaign-trail kind. It took only three hours in a Boys and Girls Club in urban Milwaukee to reveal to me a passionate, genuine Hillary Clinton who differed wildly from the candidate presented to me by cable news and social media. There were somewhere just south of a billion times when I ran toward something that most other reporters either ignored or ran away from.
It was a major league bummer to see the glaring ineptitude of an institution I trusted. My emotional and intellectual let-down did, however, have a silver lining. Observing cracks in the foundation of our democracy’s primary method of maintaining a “well-informed electorate” empowered me to add my perspective into the mortar mix that binds the bricks of a coherent campaign narrative. I’ll level with you: The triteness and narcissism of a student journalist writing that he’s got it right and everyone else doesn’t is not lost on me. But you don’t need me to tell you this. Donald Trump has turned the media’s explanatory mortar into mush before our country’s very eyes.
We’ve had just under a year to figure out the Donald Trump campaign, and about a month ago, it seemed like we finally did. Donald Trump was shaken and desperate. After divulging his support for enforcing legal punishment for women who had abortions to Chris Matthews a nationally televised Town Hall with Chris Matthews and losing to bitter rival Ted Cruz in Wisconsin, the candidate retreated to lick his wounds on the top floor of Trump Tower. Inexplicably, he got off the ropes revitalized, and ran the table on the remaining primary elections.
This unlikely success has absolutely sucked the mojo out of the media. Although political analysts have desperately needed to incorporate an element of critical reflection into their cable news hot takes, some are letting it get to them a bit too much. Just about every night, Anderson Cooper is able to stupefy smart journalists who are bearish on the prospects of a Trump presidency with the logically fallacious challenge: “Look at what happened the last time we predicted that Trump wouldn’t win.” This is terribly frustrating, and I want to suggest that although Trump might have rocked our world, he hasn’t deprived us of the analytical tools to build a new paradigm. In order to successfully grapple with the Trump phenomenon, our brightest political minds need to regain a sense of self-respect.
At this point, everybody can recognize that the pundits, both amateur and professional, gave Donald Trump too much free advertising, ignored ralliers who didn’t look like members of the Howard Stern Whack Pack, and could learn a thing or two about how to interpret statistics and polling. But they need to forgive themselves. Some of the most brilliant analysts our country has to offer have had to eat their words over the past week. One writer at the Washington Post will literally eat his column. As we reach an entirely new phase in this campaign with new dynamics, there’s never been a more opportune time to brush it off and learn from the most glaring mistakes.
The flip-side to self-doubt on this coin is denial/ignorance, and I saw a lot of it last week when the most widely shared shared and discussed picture on my Facebook feed was Trump’s smug orange mug eating a taco bowl and proclaiming his love for the Hispanics. Although, the media interpolated this as an “L” for Trump, whose first act as the Grand Old Party standard bearer was to expose himself as clueless and jingoistic.
We should recognize by now that a significant number of voters believe the Oval Office could use some more jingoism. Throngs of disaffected and socially isolated members of American society, who you might remember as “the awkward quiet kid” in high school, saw that picture on Facebook. They didn’t react to it, positively or negatively. They ignored all of the gawking captions, because the strongman candidate they’ve been looking for to eliminate the immigrant menace to society has telegraphed that you can have your wall and eat taco salad too. I say this not to point fingers or induce guilt, but to startle. This classic Trump campaign tactic is especially successful because he gets his detractors to give him free exposure without even realizing it. The only way to break the habit is a little bit of rhetorical shock therapy.
Trump denialism isn’t just coming from left-leaning Ivy League Facebook friends. One of the most talented campaigners in the history of American politics, President Barack Obama, offered a naïve framework for Republican voters to use to decide who to support in the general election:
“And I think — not just Republican officials, but more importantly, Republican voters, are going to have to make a decision as to whether this is the guy who speaks for them and represents their values.”
I’ve interviewed enough Trump supporters at rallies in Janesville, Rochester, and Syracuse to know that the only thing that unites them in their support of The Orange One is not that they feel he shares their values. Trump doesn’t have any public values or policy positions. The undecideds who end up turning out for Trump aren’t going to step into the ballot box and evaluate where on their value continuum Trump and Clinton fall. They’re going to think of all of the times they felt wronged by society, how they feel the safe world they used to know seems to be slipping away. Some will sincerely believe that Trump is the candidate to bring those bygone times back, but I’d bet that most of his supporters won’t care if he can’t. These voters are so dissatisfied with getting consistently shafted by DC and Wall Street that they’d prefer anything over the status quo.
The internet has been clogged over the past week with think pieces on the Republican Party’s structural disadvantage in terms of Electoral College math. Trump deniers posit that adding Trump’s historically high disapproval ratings into the mix spells a disastrous November for the GOP. If there’s anything that observers of this election should have learned by now is the lesson I learned last weekend: Everything we thought was true can be upended overnight. The two major parties have nominated two of the most disliked candidates in history, and all Trump needs to do is to bring Secretary Clinton’s unfavorability ratings below his.
I’m not predicting a Trump victory; I’m not saying we should throw out all of the tried and true analytical tools that political science research has given us. It’s certainly the wrong time, for those who fear what a Trump presidency would mean for the vulnerable members of our society, to panic and knee jerk. I’m only warning that we can’t continue to take for granted that a demagogue is within reach of the most powerful office in the free world.
Liberals, leftists, centrists, and pragmatists: Lend me your ears. By now, the rotting stench of these campaign developments should be wafting through the Ivory Tower. We need to take the Trump nomination seriously; we need to understand how this happened. We gave America the minimum wage, marriage equality, and casinos that serve booze 24/7. We’ve got it in us to develop and deploy a Trump-Thumping strategy. We can make that Wisconsin razzle-dazzle happen again and get America to unite around a rejection of his candidacy and what it stands for.
As we reach a new phase of the campaign where all dynamics have slowed down or reset, now is the perfect time to get to work.