Last week, I wrote about the role of gender in the American presidential election. I couldn’t have known how much the topic would explode a few days later with the release of a tape from 2005 in which Donald Trump is recorded making horribly lewd remarks about women. Many of his Republican supporters are outraged and have withdrawn their endorsements. Though Trump has managed to weather many scandals and gaffes over the course of his campaign, this may be the “October surprise” that scuppers his presidential bid.
The offending tape was recorded while Trump was about to guest star on a soap opera. Should the tape prove decisively damaging to Trump’s campaign, it will be ironic that he is undone by his involvement in the institution that has both catapulted him into the limelight and been subjected to his tireless vitriol: the media.
Trump has invoked many bugbears during his campaign, from Mexican immigrants to Chinese manufacturers to Muslims. But no group of people has been so much the target of his unrelenting scorn than “the media”. He routinely attacks journalists and broadcasters in his speeches, accusing them of “liberal bias” and lying about him. At every one of his rallies, he goads his supporters into hurling abuse at attendant reporters, cameramen and photographers. Even throughout the second debate, Trump accused the moderators of giving him less time than they did to his opponent and made the charge that the mainstream media favoured Hillary Clinton.
A Gallup poll in September suggested that 68% of Americans didn’t trust the mainstream media. Trump took some credit for the high figure: “I am really proud to say that I think I had a lot to do with that poll number.” Much as Hindu nationalists on Twitter call members of the Indian media “presstitutes,” “sepoys” and “boot-lickers,” Trump’s legions of internet supporters send venomous messages to journalists, including racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and violent threats.
And yet no presidential candidate has been more enabled and empowered by the media than Trump.
In the early 1990s, he posed as a fake PR executive to share news of his own romantic exploits with the tabloids. He later inflated his name by embarking on a successful career in reality TV. His political career was based on a very public, racist quest to find Barack Obama’s birth certificate. His stunning victory in the Republican presidential primary — upsetting more established, bigger-spending rivals like Jeb Bush — came on the back of an estimated $2 billion worth of free media publicity. Networks found Trump’s reckless and discombobulated style a welcome break from traditional political rhetoric. Chasing ratings, they lavished him with airtime.
In a leaked email, Colin Powell — the Republican former secretary of state under George W Bush — attacked the media for dancing to Trump’s tune. After declining in December 2015 to appear on a Trump-related segment on CNN, Powell wrote: “It’s time to start ignoring him. You guys are playing his game, you are his oxygen.” Powell predicted what then seemed an outlandish possibility, that Trump would win the Republican candidacy.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, admitted that Trump has flummoxed the media. “He’s been hugely challenging. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who in my time as a journalist so openly lies, and that was a word that we struggled to actually utter.” American coverage of presidential elections is predicated on the competition of two more-or-less symmetrical parties. As the media scholar Jay Rosen has observed at length, Trump’s campaign has massively distorted that paradigm. “A political style that mocks the idea of a common world of facts… is an attack on the very possibility of honest journalism,” Rosen writes. “Campaign journalists have to find a way to oppose this style without becoming election-season opponents of Trump himself.” To their credit, networks like CNN and establishment newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times are belatedly trying to push back against Trump’s manipulations of the truth.
Of course, journalists are never beyond reproach. The American media was hugely culpable in delivering to the world the debacle of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Journalists, just like the political class, warrant trenchant and regular criticism.
But the hate stirred by Trump against the media has little to do with engaging with its shortcomings. Trump demonises the media not because he actually believes it is worthy of vilification, but because he knows his supporters revel in bashing the chattering classes, in arraying themselves against a seemingly unaccountable elite.
Their disavowal of the media is, perversely, a refusal to have their own beliefs questioned. Already, Trump’s apologists are blaming the media for inflating the significance of his appalling sexist remarks. They want to turn a revelation about the depravities of a man who hopes to be president into proof of a media conspiracy against their dear leader. Their deep, emotional rejection of inconvenient news (and its messengers) reminds us that Trump’s campaign is not only animated by racist, xenophobic, and sexist passions, but also by a 21st century authoritarianism.