Here are some facts.
Donald Trump has alleged that many Mexican immigrants are rapists.
Donald Trump has pledged that he “will build a great, great wall on our southern border,” and that he “will have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Donald Trump has referred to President Obama, sarcastically, as “our great African American president.”
Donald Trump has repeatedly dismissed high-profile women for being “unattractive.”
Donald Trump has been rejected as a business partner by, among others, NBC Universal, Univision, and Macy’s.
Here is another fact: The two most recent national polls show Donald Trump leading the field for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
And here is one more: On Friday, The Huffington Post announced that it will cease to cover Trump in the Politics section of its website. Instead, its Trump coverage will be filed under Entertainment. In a post headlined “A Note About Our Coverage Of Donald Trump’s ‘Campaign,’” the site’s Washington bureau chief and its editorial director explain that “our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” And so, they have concluded, “We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
This declaration reads as a bold, principled stand—a move against the horse-racing and herd-thinking and hive-minding that have been longstanding sources of dissatisfaction with American political reporting. And on the one hand, sure, that’s partially what this is: It’s HuffPost, ever proud in its perspective, rejecting the easy conveniences of news categories and claiming that not all candidates—not all “candidates”—deserve the press attention traditionally accorded to those who seek the White House.
There’s a subtlety to the logic here. HuffPost’s statement isn’t claiming that Donald Trump, currently a leading presidential candidate in a crowded GOP field, doesn’t deserve coverage; it is claiming instead that Donald Trump, currently a leading presidential candidate in a crowded GOP field, deserves neither his front-runner status nor the attention that comes with it. Polls and press coverage, after all, are notoriously chicken-and-egg-y. And HuffPost, of course, is taking an opinion that many Americans share—that Trump is a wind-bagging buffoon—and converting it into an editorial stand. That is its right as a publication. It is also, to the extent that the what of news coverage is as journalistically important as the how, its duty.
And yet. The Republican primary electorate seems to disagree with HuffPost. You can quibble with the polling numbers, sure; it is another matter to ignore them.
There’s also the fact that most readers, who come to news articles via Facebook or Twitter or URLs emailed by friends, pay zero attention to the section that happens to house a given story—meaning that Trump stories with “entertainment” buried in their URLs are essentially the same as Trump stories with “politics” buried in them. (You could also add that HuffPost’s Entertainment vertical likely gets much more traffic than its Politics vertical—meaning that the move will likely end up generating more, not less, attention for Trump, bringing his antics to the notice even of those readers who generally ignore politics. Nor has HuffPost foresworn the revenue from the ads served alongside these stories.)
The other issue, though, is that HuffPost, with its announcement, may be drawing a line between politics and entertainment that is impossible to discern in 2015.
Yes, granted: Trump—cf. the excess of outraged takes on his excessively outrageous comments, the emerging wire-photo sub-genre that delights in capturing his orange-hued face mid-yell—is on top of all else an entertainer. Granted: He connects, according to the best metrics available, with large swaths of the American electorate. Granted: He is a reality-TV star, and applies the skills required of that work to his campaign.
Which is also to say that Trump, in his candidacy, is being exactly who we want him to be. “We” as participants in the media system as it currently operates, and “we” as that hazy body commonly shorthanded as “the American public.” We ask—actually, we demand—that our politicians be not just intelligent and well-informed and quick-witted and concerned about, as it usually goes, “people like me,” but also that they be sources of drama and distraction and indignation and delight. They should be charming, but not smarmy. Well-spoken, but approachable. Good-looking, but not vain about it. Vying as they are to be entertainers-in-chief as well as commanders-in-chief, they should be skilled at both delivering zingers at the White House Correspondents Dinner and issuing orders in the Situation Room. They should channel hopes and fears and the past and the future, inspiring effortlessly, delighting daily, serving, metaphorically, at once as parents and pals.
And they should be, above all—a mandate that reveals much more about the American people than it does about those who seek to lead them—people they’d want to have beers with.
Well. You know who’d probably be extremely entertaining in a bar? Donald Trump.
And you know who had some real zingers on Morning Joe the other day? Donald Trump.
And you know who’s currently feuding, zestily, with Rick Perry? Donald Trump.
And you know whose hairdo looks really funny when Photoshopped onto the assorted cats of the Internet? Donald Trump’s.
And that, finally, is the problem—with political news coverage in general, with the expectations of the American electorate, and with a widely read news outlet dismissing a leading presidential candidate, sneeringly, as “Entertainment.” The primacy of the screen in our current method of candidate-screening has meant that politics is, at this point, largely indistinguishable from pop culture. Celebrified candidates are part of the compact Americans have made with their political news, because policy can be boring and learning the new things requires understanding the old ones and the stakes are so high and voters are all very human and tired. Attention is one of the most powerful things Americans have to give; news outlets reward them for it not just with pertinent information about “the issues,” but also with juicy soundbites and indignation-inducing video clips and distractingly delightful comparisons of candidates to cats.
In that sense: You can disagree, vehemently, with Donald Trump. You can find him ridiculous, his views abhorrent, his whole person a little bit monstrous. What you cannot do, however, is ignore Donald Trump. He is there, and there he will remain. Giving Americans no more, and no less, than what they’ve asked for.