Fox News’ coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign has resembled the treatment that the real estate tycoon and reality TV star receives in “the mainstream media.” It is unlike the network’s coverage of unqualified populist favorites from past election cycles, like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain. And populists are taking notice.
Last week’s debate is a fine illustration.
Immediately after the candidates left the stage in Cleveland, Ohio, Fox News moderator and anchor Megyn Kelly threw the network’s coverage over to pollster Frank Luntz, who stood in a room with a small group of voters gathered to offer their impressions. “Megyn, we’re about to make some news tonight,” he said as he turned to the panel. His meaning quickly became apparent: Under questioning, most of the assembled voters revealed that they felt unfavorably about Trump’s performance.
“You know what happened?” one man said. “I liked him when I came in here, because he wasn’t a politician. But right now, he skirted around questions better than a lifelong politician ever had.” Said another, “I was really expecting him to do a lot better, but he just crashed and burned. He was mean, he was angry, he had no specifics, he was bombastic.” A third voter declared, “You know, he just let me down. I just expected him to rise to the occasion and look presidential. He didn’t.”
The reactions were confounding to me, even though they squared with the conventional wisdom that Trump’s demeanor had finally inflicted a fatal wound on his presidential prospects.
I’d watched the debate. For most of it, I thought that Donald Trump would emerge as popular as ever: I don’t understand his appeal, but his performance was completely in keeping with the style and substance of his campaign to that point. Why did the handpicked Republicans disagree? Had I been in the room with them, I’d have asked, “If you came here as a Donald Trump supporter, how could you possibly be disappointed by tonight’s anger, bombast, blatant question-skirting, and a lack of specifics? When have you known the man to act differently?”
As I switched off the TV, I thought of two possibilities: Either I understood Trump supporters less well than I thought, or Fox News had assembled a wildly unrepresentative panel that misrepresented the reaction to Trump’s performance.
Come Monday, I was no longer puzzled.
“There is no sign that Donald Trump's raucous first presidential debate is hurting his support among party voters,” Reuters reported, “with the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showing he still has a big lead over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. The debate did little to change Republican voters' opinions of Trump, the poll found. One-third said they liked him more after the debate, one-third said they liked him less, and the remaining third said their opinions had not changed.”
An unrepresentative Fox News panel does not raise my suspicions. Like other cable news channels, the network offers political coverage that isn’t particularly rigorous, and pollster Frank Luntz has gotten far more consequential matters wrong before. But the hard right has always been more inclined to attribute media missteps to conspiracy rather than incompetence. Now it’s suspicious of Fox News.
“They took advantage of us,” talk radio host Mark Levin told Breitbart, “they took advantage of the audience.” Steve Deace declared in USA Today that “very few conservatives I interacted with during and after the debate thought Fox was ‘fair and balanced.’”
The most popular entertainer in the conservative movement, talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, speculated on Friday that the Republican Party establishment had conspired with Fox News, ordering the network to “take out” Trump. In another segment, he criticized the debate moderators. “If I didn't know any better,” he said, “I would have watched this thing thinking that there is a Republican War on Women based on the questions and the lack of a woman being on the stage among the 10. I thought the War on Women was a Democrat creation by George Stephanopoulos. The last place I ever thought I would see it continued is Fox News.”
In a CNN interview, Trump either implied or accidentally seemed to imply that Kelly treated him angrily during the debate because she was menstruating at the time. Said fellow GOP candidate Carly Fiorina in a tweet: “Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse.” Fiorina would continue to attack Trump and to voice her support for Kelly.
Afterwards, a caller to Rush Limbaugh’s show responded:
Rush, it's an honor. Thank you for taking my call, and mega dittos. I'm calling in regard to Carly Fiorina and her support in her tweet to where she clearly stated, “I stand with Megyn.” She tweeted that, Rush. And, you know what, in my book, you stand up with the media or for the media, you are now part of the media. If you align yourself personally with the media, you are now part of the media. And, Rush, she has clearly played straight into the hand of the media, and there is no way I want my president to send out little tweets in support of the media. I'm just outraged.
Note that there is no distinction made between the Fox News Channel and “the mainstream media” or “the liberal media” or what Rush Limbaugh calls “the drive-by media.” There’s just “the media.” Kelly is a part of it. She is therefore the enemy, her attackers are allies, and those who stand with her are useful idiots at best.
I rarely agree with Limbaugh. But I think he was right when he said about Trump: “There's a percentage of the population that is totally fed up with the political class, including the media. And they have wanted things said to people and about people… for years and they haven't heard it. I mean, the media is not loved. The media in some cases is despised, and Trump is giving it right back to 'em in ways that many people in this country have dreamed of happening.”
“As such,” the radio star said of the former NBC host, “he comes off as refreshing. Even when he's not on message, or not on issues, he comes across as somebody that says things they would like to say … things they have hoped others would say ... I don't think a lot of these big players, including in the media, have any idea who their audiences are … I don't think they have the slightest idea the size of and the amount of real anger directed at them … It goes so far beyond the fact that they're biased.”
Consider the Fox News debate as Donald Trump fans experienced it. Wouldn’t you wager that Kelly, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier all believe that Trump’s candidacy is a joke and that his supporters are naive and misguided? Didn’t their questions seem to imply that Trump is obviously unfit to be president?
Meanwhile, hasn’t Fox News spent years conditioning viewers to believe that journalists belong to a condescending class of decadent elites which engages in barely-concealed conspiracies to destroy anyone who tells it like it is to real Americans? For years, Roger Ailes broadcast everything that Glenn Beck wrote on a chalk board! Surveying America for individuals whose insights he would broadcast to the masses, he settled on Sarah Palin as a person whose analysis he would amplify. It is no accident that a chunk of the Fox News audience is now inclined to side with Trump over Kelly. With Trump’s rise, the network is reaping what it has sown.
Of course, I agree with the Fox anchors about Trump, assuming I’m reading them right. I think he is unqualified to be president; that his supporters are naive and misguided; and that they would abandon him immediately if they knew what was good for them. But there’s one sense in which I’ll show Trump supporters more respect than many in the media. I won’t pretend to think that they should stop supporting Trump because of his remarks about Rosie O’Donnell or John McCain or Megyn Kelly. Sure, in every case, I find the man’s comments beyond distasteful, but let’s be honest: If he’d never said any of those things, I’d still be horrified by his rise to the top of the Republican field, and so would the vast majority of his media critics.
Better to be forthright.
Trump is unfit to be president because he has no experience in government; because he cynically stokes xenophobia for political gain; because he has given voters every reason to believe that he would put his own selfish interests above the country’s interests; because he has demonstrated no firm grasp of public policy in any area; and because his boastfulness, bombast, and petty insults are signs of insecurity, not confidence. It would be dangerous to put such an apparently insecure man in a position of power.
In the next debate, those are the areas that moderators ought to probe, not the far less interesting and more easily deflected subject of whatever off-color insult he last uttered, as if it is more relevant than his glaring flaws on matters of huge importance.
Perhaps engaging Trump supporters on substantive points would be fruitful; perhaps not. Either way, hoping that off-the-cuff comments about a McCain or a Kelly will discredit him—and play-acting as if that is the source of the dismay at his rise—isn’t working. Populists see through it. And they believe, sometimes correctly, that elites talk about them in ways that are equally insulting without ever having to apologize. Trump may yet implode. And I don’t see any way for him to win a general election. But if he doesn’t implode and GOP elites want to keep him from becoming their nominee or a third-party spoiler, they’ll need to offer winning arguments as to why he’s unqualified to a base that they’ve trained to be immune to media persuasion.
Karma is a Trump.
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