What the Press Got Right About Trump's Candidacy

One year ago, the entertainer got into the race—and reporters got him all wrong. Or did they?

Christopher Gregory / Getty

If there’s one thing people know about Donald Trump’s announcement that he was running for president, one year ago today, it’s his statement that Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” If there’s a second, it’s the golden escalator he rode into the announcement.

But if there’s a third, it’s that the press got the Trump phenomenon wrong—hilariously, painfully wrong. What if that’s not totally true, though? On one crucial element, reporters and pundits—along with political operatives, rival candidates, and most of the population—wrongly believed that Trump had little chance at the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. The press’s second-favorite activity, after self-aggrandizement, is self-flagellation, so we’ve heard a lot about this error. (Here’s my own rendition. With GIFs!)

Looking back at many of the news stories from June 16 of last year, however, a reader is struck by how much about the Trump campaign a lay observer would have understood right there, off the bat. Once you set aside predictions about Trump’s failures, many news stories are downright prescient. Someone reading the morning news on June 17 would have known what the major themes of Trump’s campaign would be, what his political persona would be, why he might be a major force, how he would bedevil the Republican Party, and just what his weaknesses would be. They’d even have a sense of the playlist that Trump blares at rallies even today, including The Phantom of the Opera and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

First, take the issues: In addition to the infamous “rapists” remark, Trump’s speech touched on national security, terror, and above all trade, and all of those were heavily covered in his campaign. The announcement also set the template for Trump’s standard stump speech, which usually includes a few key highlights but is otherwise mostly improvised and disorganized, a style nearly every reporter picked up on. The offensive rhetoric about Mexicans also presaged many of Trump’s even more outlandish comments since, and his steadfast crusade against “political correctness.”

As many writers noted, Trump was light on details. The New York Times’ Alex Burns wrote, in a spookily prescient article, “If Mr. Trump’s ideology has proved flexible, the cornerstone of his worldview has not: He has consistently been a passionate believer in Donald Trump, and his own capacity to bully and badger his way into the best possible deal.” Reid Epstein and Heather Haddon of The Wall Street Journal added, “The event at the marble-clad Trump Tower reflected Mr. Trump’s outsize personality.” Many articles noted that Trump had repeatedly boasted about his wealth. CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reported that “spectators got a flavor for the type of candidate Trump plans to become—one who shoots from the hip and doesn't care for a script—and the ideas he'll promote.”

From a more opinionated angle, Reason’s Brian Doherty presaged the psychological critiques of Trump that would follow: “While seeking coherence in the political mind of such a man is a mug's game, I think it's fair to say a certain unbridled American id is at play in Trump.… A sort of middle-American arrogant bluster is a common thread.”

My colleague Russell Berman foresaw the fact-free nature of Trump’s campaign, which has been blissfully indifferent to the increasing hyperventilation of fact-checkers trying to beat back each new half-truth and full falsehood. “The irony is that although Trump may be offering himself up as the anti-politician, there is nobody who does a better job at telling people what they want to hear, regardless of how accurate or nonsensical it is,” Berman wrote, a sentence that could sum up the entire Trump campaign.

Many writers managed to capture why Trump might be a formidable candidate, too. Berman reasoned through Trump’s logic. “And really, why not run?” he wrote. “The Republican field is a splintered free-for-all, and to the chagrin of the party establishment, Trump could find himself on the 10-person debate stage by dint of his universally recognized name alone, without even setting foot in Iowa and New Hampshire.” In fact, the ability to leverage that profile into a spot atop the polls would be perhaps Trump’s greatest accomplishment of the primary.

Burns grasped that, too, citing (of all people) Geraldo Rivera:

But Mr. Trump, who has never held elective office, may not be so easily confined to the margins of the 2016 campaign. Thanks to his enormous media profile, he stands a good chance of qualifying for nationally televised debates, where his appetite for combat and skill at playing to the gallery could make him a powerfully disruptive presence.

…. Geraldo Rivera, the veteran broadcaster who was a finalist on “Celebrity Apprentice,” said Mr. Trump would quickly leave a mark on the race thanks to his ability as a showman.

“Right now, Jeb Bush is announcing,” Mr. Rivera said Monday afternoon. “Who would you rather watch, him or Trump?”

Many more voters, it turned out, would prefer Trump to Jeb. But it wasn’t just Bush who was in trouble, as Epstein and Haddon foresaw:

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who sought the party’s nomination in 2012, said Mr. Trump has the ability to steal the thunder from fellow GOP candidates. “Let’s say you’re Rick Perry or Chris Christie and your brand is ‘I’m the blunt talker,’” he said. “Well, you just got somebody who is more blunt. It’s like, top that!”

All of that showed why Trump posed such a real challenge to the Republican Party establishment and its standard-bearer, Bush, with whom Trump had been “eager to scuffle with,” in Burns’s words. USA Today’s Susan Page cited forecaster Nathan Gonzales’s judgment that the announcement was “a big headache for the Republican Party.” (To be fair, Gonzales added, “Donald Trump is not going to be the Republican nominee for president. Any time that he consumes on the debate stage and in the media is time he's taking away from a legitimate contender.") Lo and behold, a year later, the Republican establishment is splintered, bewildered, and in hibernation, if indeed it still exists at all. Many of its surviving members seem pessimistic on the existential question.

Here it’s worth adding a caveat: Nearly every story noted that Trump’s vast wealth would allow him to self-fund his campaign, giving him a monetary boost and the ability to claim he was untainted. While Trump has continued to make that claim for months, it’s simply not true. Trump has barely contributed to his campaign at all, mostly in the form of loans, and he is now fundraising like a normal candidate—if not as effectively.

Yet Trump enters the general election as at least a slight underdog. Some of the reasons for that are structural—Democrats have a small demographic advantage. But some are also Trump’s creation, and they were foreseen a year ago. For example, there’s his proclivity for alienating minorities, demonstrated with his broadside against Mexicans. “In recent polls, more than half of Republicans said they had a negative view of him—a tough spot to start a campaign,” CNN’s Diamond wrote. Reflecting on the scene at Trump Tower, Berman wrote, “There might be a constituency for his antics, but they are unlikely to wear well over the long months of the campaign.” They’ve worn better than anyone outside of Trump’s inner circle predicted, but the tone has taken its toll. Although Trump’s favorability steadily rose as he vanquished his Republican rivals, an ABC/Washington Post poll released Wednesday showed his unfavorable rating at 70 percent, back up where it was 13 months ago.

Many of the observations made a year ago hold up so well because Trump is an incredibly consistent campaigner—or at least consistently erratic. Traditional politicians tend to steer their boats toward away from the center during the primary, and then into the center for the general election. In between, they zig and zag, correcting course based on topics they want to accentuate from time to time, or based on what’s in the news. But Trump is like a massive arctic icebreaker, steaming forward along a set course regardless of what comes up. That’s one of the things that attracts his fans: He can’t be said not to pander, exactly, for the reasons Berman noted, but he doesn’t give the impression of shifting with the political winds.

Whatever the reasons, the look back offers some vindication for the media, which has been even more maligned that usual this election season. It turns out the press wasn’t as bad at covering Trump as, well, the press would have you believe.