A little over a year ago, I went on national TV and vowed to never again write about Donald Trump. I believed his candidacy was a stunt and a farce, crass performance art mixed with brazen brand promotion. I didn’t think Trump seriously wanted to be president (and still don’t sometimes). I expected him to flame out in a heap of hubris and incompetence.
Trump had just made his much-vaunted visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. From the moment he’d barged into the race, with the grace and subtlety of the Kool-Aid Man, Trump had made immigration his rallying cry. He assailed Mexico for sending gangs of “rapists” and drug-dealing criminals into the United States and pledged to build a big new border wall to stop them. When he announced plans to tour the border last July, the logical thing to do was to follow him there and document what happened when rhetoric collided with reality.
I’ve reported on politics for nearly a decade. Attended hundreds, if not thousands, of rallies, marches, stump speeches, conventions, fundraisers, press conferences, occupations, sit-ins, fly-ins, and die-ins. Trump’s border visit was unlike any political event I’d ever witnessed.
His original plan called for a tour of the “actual border” near Laredo, Texas, with some local border-patrol agents—a plan, he said, that held “great danger” with no explanation of what the danger was. But the agents bailed last-minute, and Trump instead opted for a brief tour of a nearby trucking port. The greatest danger faced by any of us—Trump, his phalanx of personal security guards, and several hundred members of the U.S. and international press corps, myself included—was a reckless semi spilling crates of lentils onto our heads. And sunburn.
There’s one moment from that trip I’ll never forget. We were standing under a canopy near the trucking port—er, “the border”—for a press conference with Trump. As the TV cameramen jockeyed for position, Trump sauntered to the microphones, squinting out at us from under a blinding white MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat (the hat’s debut).
“Thank you very much for being here,” he began. “Mexico is booming, absolutely booming.” Mexico? The reporters shot each other disbelieving looks. He praised the Laredo mayor and city manager, then added, “But a lot of what’s happening here is because of the fact that Mexico is doing so well. Just, uh, doing beyond what anybody ever thought.” The candidate whose raison d’être to that point was stopping illegal immigration from Mexico had now decided, with the eyes of the world on him, to heap praise on… Mexico. “And I don’t know if that’s good for the United States, but it’s good for Mexico. Anybody have any questions?”
The whole trip lasted just four hours, surreal from start to end. I wrote my story as soon as I got back to Washington and, a few days later, went on CNN to affirm its final paragraph: I was done writing about Trump. The feigned visit to the border, the inexplicable bullishness on Mexico, the pretense of imminent danger, the word salad—I could not continue to give that side-show serious attention. While I was—and remain—fascinated by Trump’s support among voters of all ages, I thought his candidacy would implode once the primaries began, if not sooner.
And look what’s happened.
I held to my anti-Trump vow for a good nine months, until it was painfully clear how wrong I had been. Even then, I’ve only written about the man twice. But like many of us, I’ve watched Trump’s speeches and read his tweets, and in my head, I go back to Laredo and the questions it left me with, questions that linger all these months later. What is this spectacle I’m witnessing? (It’s not a presidential campaign, not in the way I understood a campaign to be.) What’s the meaning of the Trump phenomenon?
Trump has been the subject of millions of stories, hundreds of thousands of radio and TV segments, endless tweets and Facebook screeds. There are days when it feels like network news exists for the sole purpose of broadcasting Trump’s apricot mug. Yet I can’t say I feel any closer to grasping the fundamental nature of this historically bizarre election year, its tectonic movements at work throughout the nation. What am I—what are Americans—supposed to learn from Trump’s rise?
I’ve come up with a theory: Trump’s candidacy has acted like a barium test on our body politic, revealing the flaws, distortions, and breakdowns that riddle the system. He has unwittingly shone a light on what has gone wrong in American politics: how it is discussed, how it is funded, and how it is covered. And he has done it—oblivious to the nth degree—in a way that no other candidate could (though I’ll mention Bernie Sanders) and in a manner that is apparent to any voter who has paid the slightest bit of attention to politics this year. In no way do I support the mendacity of so much of what Trump says and does. At the same time, much as it hurts me to say so, I believe that Trump has done the nation a service.
I recently spoke with the veteran Democratic consultant Steve Jarding, who teaches a famous Harvard class about American politics and running for office, and I mentioned my barium-test theory. “I think you’re right on,” he said. “Once the barium leaves the body, we’re going to say: ‘Oh my, that painted a very ugly picture of the body politic. We better change it, or else we’re going to kill the body politic.’”
No candidate has ever talked like Trump. “Rapist” immigrants. “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” line sounds downright Victorian compared with what comes out of Trump’s mouth. And yet what would have sunk any other candidate for president has inexplicably made him stronger, more popular.
It’s undeniable that part of Trump’s success boils down to his unfiltered persona, his ugly authenticity, the sense that no pollster stands between him and the people. (If there is, he isn’t listening.) “No one tells me what to say,” he once claimed, and who could argue? Trump is the photo negative of the cautious-to-a-fault modern politician Americans have come to know so well. And while he can hardly be applauded for the tone and substance of his rhetoric, he has also exposed the sorry state of how politics are talked about in America.
Face it: Political language is dead. Politicians speak of “everyday Americans” who are “sick and tired” of “politics as usual.” They pledge to “move the country forward” (against an opposition forever poised to “take us backward”). “My name may be on the ballot,” they remind the voters, “but this election is about you.” Cringe. Pundits express reservations over whether a candidate looks “presidential” enough, is “ready for prime time”; they talk about “optics,” the inevitable staff “shake-up,” the ever-looming “pivot.” It all sounds the same and means little; there’s nothing fresh about it; Orwell spins in his grave. Trump, in his own twisted way, has put in stark relief the vacuousness of this campaignspeak.
Consider his slogan: Make America Great Again. With that one word, again, Trump broke from a long line of predecessors—that is, pretty much every candidate to run before him—and dared to suggest that America isn’t already great. It is a rebuke to the most common political trope there is. Political contenders from sheriff to president serve up shiny paeans to America the “indispensable” nation, the “exceptional” nation, the shining city on a hill, etc. Trump has instead offered a fundamentally dark view of this country. We aren’t great, Trump is saying. Elect me and we’ll be great, sure, but we’re not right now; we’re second rate. Dusk in America.
Trump, of course, has no substantive agenda to do what his slogan says: make America great again. In reality, he has only used that slogan to stoke fear, to suggest that this country is a frightening place to live and only he can fix it. But what’s so startling is that Trump chose a theme of decline for his campaign slogan at all. No other presidential candidate would dare do so. And yet, in a country where so many people have watched their jobs vanish, their wages flat-line, or their health-care costs soar, where a majority of Americans don’t think their kids will lead better lives than their parents did, it’s little wonder that Trump’s mantra has so resonated.
I witnessed a similar dynamic at work in the surprising success of the presidential campaign’s other outsider, Senator Bernie Sanders. Last fall, I attended a national student town hall for Sanders on a college campus in Northern Virginia. Several thousand students had packed into a gymnasium festooned with handmade signs and colorful bunting.
It was my first Sanders event, and his speech was unlike anything I’d heard before, a succession of gloomy statistics about the state of America: 2.2 million people incarcerated, $1 trillion in student debt, the growing chasm between the top 0.1 percent and everyone else. He tersely transitioned between subjects: “Now, there’s another issue I want to discuss…” And on he went, issue-switch after issue-switch, for well over an hour. He finished with a call for political revolution and exited without working the crowd.
And here was the weirder part: The college kids ate it up. They interrupted his doom-and-gloom lecturing with rapturous applause and squeals of “I love you, Bernie!” They cheered when he promised tuition-free college but also when he rattled off yet another factoid about mass incarceration. I watched one student pump his fist and nod his head more and more feverishly until, sufficiently possessed by the Bernie spirit, he leapt from his chair and rushed the podium. As he returned to his seat, I half-expected the kid to speak in tongues.
Driving home that evening, all I could think of was Sanders’s grim message and those euphoric students. Finally, they seemed to be saying, here is a candidate telling it like it is. No gauzy metaphors and no hand-holding, no promises to “unleash” the “job creators,” no “crossroads” or “points of light.”
In their own ways, Trump and, to a degree, Sanders connected with people by eschewing Washington parlance. They rubbed off the layer of bullshit people hear when politicians talk about, well, anything.
Back when Trump could still plausibly claim to be self-funding his campaign—and assuring his supporters that, unlike the other guys, he alone could not be bought—he stood on a debate stage with nine of his rivals and said what not one of them would dare admit out loud. “I will tell you that our system is broken,” he said in August 2015. “Before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That’s a broken system.”
The good folks at Public Citizen couldn’t have scripted a better PSA—and found a more credible spokesman—if they’d wanted to.
For a brief period, no one person made a better case for repairing the country’s crumbling campaign-finance system than Trump. Early on, he had begun beating the drum about campaign cash and its corrupting effects. It was a self-serving line of attack, sure, but it made a valuable point all the same because it came from inside the system. “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” he said another time. His hammering away on money-in-politics forced the other Republican hopefuls to follow suit. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, for instance, struck a Sanders-esque tone: “The problem is we have a Wall Street-to-Washington axis of power that has controlled the political climate.”
No less than Michael Dukakis—former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee—lauded Trump for bringing campaign money and influence to the fore. “Since he hasn’t mortgaged his soul to one of the seven billionaires that finance these campaigns,” Dukakis said, “he’s free to say things that the rest of them won’t.”
By this point, there aren’t many people left in either party who say the U.S. campaign-finance system functions like it should. Super PACs, unaccountable dark-money groups, porous donation limits, and feckless watchdogs have empowered super-rich donors and wealthy corporations (and scared off those without the cash or Rolodex to raise the millions needed to run) in a way not seen since the era before Watergate. The Washington Post recently reported that 50 donors have given almost 40 percent of the staggering $1.5 billion raised by super PACs through September. Charles and David Koch and their friends set a goal of spending nearly $900 million this cycle to win elections and push their own agendas, essentially underwriting the GOP’s defense plan in the House and Senate.
Sanders, too, made a forceful case for reimagining how political campaigns are funded and how to combat the corrupting influence of million-dollar checks and the donors who write them. For the Sanders faithful, “PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2016 (not the billionaires)” was more than lip service; it was a call to arms. And Sanders not only railed against the existing system but demonstrated a way around it: He disavowed super PACs and raised most of his campaign money in small-dollar amounts. His campaign received nearly 7 million donations and the average sum was $27. All told, Sanders raised $209 million to fuel his insurgent campaign, an eye-popping sum for an irritable 75-year-old democratic-socialist who entered the race mostly unknown beyond his home state of Vermont.
Anyone who has tuned in to American politics lately senses something’s amiss with money in politics, even without boning up on Citizens United and the finer points of election law. Which makes Trump’s early—and sadly fleeting—comments on the issue all the more important. He gave voice to one of the gravest threats to the U.S. political system and reached a new audience to boot, people for whom Koch is a soda brand and super PACs a head-scratcher, an audience that the good-government types in Washington can only dream of reaching.
In 1953, William Paley, chairman of CBS, threw his weight behind a federal bill that could have changed the nature of presidential campaigns. No, he wasn’t pushing for more money in American politics or more televised debates. On the contrary, the piece of legislation Paley supported would have limited the length of future presidential campaigns to just eight or nine weeks. Paley and others believed that the rise of TV meant the end of unnecessarily long campaigns. With candidates now able to reach millions of voters in the comfort of their living rooms, he argued, why prolong the campaign over a period of many months or even a year?
A network boss calling for shorter campaigns? How about TV stations refusing to run short political ads because they were, in the words of one executive, “undignified, excessively abbreviated, and only a caricature of the candidate’s views”? Such morsels of long-forgotten history are so alien to the current moment that they feel like an alternate reality.
Compare Paley with current CBS chief executive Les Moonves. He said in February that the “circus” of the 2016 campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He went on: “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. … It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
For an ailing broadcast industry, Trump is manna from heaven, a spectacle yuge enough to outshine even the NFL. Damn good, indeed.
The abnormality of the U.S. political system that Trump’s candidacy has perhaps most exposed is the failure of so much of the media, especially the TV networks. With each campaign cycle, elections have come to be treated by the largest news organizations as more like cage fights or Bachelorette finales to be pumped for ratings and revenue rather than as the necessary workings of a functioning democracy. CNN’s house ads for its presidential debates—the dramatic music, boldface names, and shadowy close-ups of the steely-faced candidates—looked like previews for a UFC pay-per-view fight.
Remember the early Republican debates? To use the term “debate” would be grossly inaccurate. These were battle-royale food fights—and the worst-behaved players were in some cases the moderators. They pit the candidates against one another with tit-for-tat questioning and a focus on pretty much everything but the issues. Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy found that “substantive concerns”—policy positions, leadership styles, personal histories, and background information on election issues—accounted for just one-tenth of all campaign coverage during the primaries. It got so bad the candidates themselves took issue with the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I tenor of the debates. “If I were sitting at home and watching this back and forth, I’d be inclined to turn it off,” Ohio Governor John Kasich said last year.
After the presidential field narrowed to Hillary Clinton and Trump, the fixation on drama, the superficiality of the reporting and punditry, and the nonstop coverage was stunning. No matter what news channel you landed on, Trump—and occasionally Clinton—was the story of the day, usually a fresh piece of controversy, Trump’s tweets or Clinton’s emails. One of the most astounding statistics of the presidential campaign, a figure that will no doubt be cited for decades, was the finding that Trump had received $3 billion in free media from the blanket coverage of his candidacy. (Clinton’s total was just over $1 billion.) That was only through April; the total is surely many times higher now.
Put simply, Trump has revealed a news media that simply can’t help itself. It would be one thing if the wall-to-wall coverage included rigorous examinations not just of Trump’s personal behavior and business history but also his policy agenda (such as it is) and his preparedness to be commander-in-chief. The Shorenstein Center did another news-coverage analysis, this time of Trump and Clinton during the four-week period around the national party conventions this summer. Just one-eighth of all Trump stories focused on policy and issues; for Clinton, one-20th. There is always more demand, it seems, for stories on the size of Trump’s hands or a boneheaded Skittles meme than on either candidate’s positions on nuclear proliferation or higher education. Future generations will wonder how not one of the 70 questions asked during the three presidential debates mentioned climate change.
Thinking about all of this brought to mind a scene from A Perfect Candidate, the filmmaker R.J. Cutler’s inside account of Oliver North’s 1994 bid for U.S. Senate in Virginia. “We are obsessed with getting people elected, and we are obsessed with the show,” North’s campaign manager, Mark Goodin, tells Cutler. “And so are you, or you wouldn’t be here.” It is one of the great scenes in any film about politics, and today Goodin’s point has never felt more true: Everyone is implicated—the media and its audiences included—in the treatment of campaigns and politics as entertainment, fight nights, reality TV.
In fairness, there has been standout journalism this cycle, including David Fahrenthold’s reporting on the Trump Foundation, The New York Times’ scoops on Trump’s tax practices, and Charles Pierce’s searing columns for Esquire. A handful of news organizations have respectfully given voice to the women who allege Trump assaulted them. But no one can say this admirable work outweighs the incessant coverage and punditry on Trump’s latest tweet, flap, sniff, and insult. The volume isn’t the problem; it’s the volume combined with the inanity of it, the herd mentality. One person writes about Skittles, then everyone writes about Skittles, rinse, repeat. For the last 16 months, Trump has been the runaway llama of Americans’ daily lives.
In an episode of The Circus, Showtime’s weekly chronicle of the presidential race, pundit and co-host Mark Halperin spoke with MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell. Mitchell marveled at the speed and ferocity of the race, but she also spoke critically of the media’s “substance-free” coverage. “We used to run issue stories!” she said. “We used to talk about foreign policy. And education. Housing. Health care. We don’t do that anymore.”
Mitchell hosts a daily, hour-long program called Andrea Mitchell Reports. If Mitchell wanted to run more issue stories, you’d think she could walk into her next story meeting and order up more issue stories. That she can’t, or won’t, while bemoaning the media’s lack of substance says a great deal about the media and the current moment.
On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, Larry Sabato, the garrulous political analyst who runs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, heard from a senior aide on Mitt Romney’s campaign. Sabato is known for his Crystal Ball, a website where he and his staff rate the year’s campaigns and predict the winners and losers. Sabato gave Obama the edge in the final days of the race. The Romney staffer told him he was wrong, that Romney would win, and, as proof, pointed to the huge crowds Romney was drawing at his rallies.
Sabato laughed. He mentioned to the staffer Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus, a fly-on-the-wall account of the journalists covering the 1972 presidential race. “There’s a wonderful passage,” Sabato told me recently, “in which the senior reporters like David Broder and Johnny Apple are telling their editors to be ready for a giant upset because they had never seen crowds as big or enthusiastic as McGovern was drawing, and Nixon wasn’t drawing them.” McGovern, of course, lost in a landslide.
Politics is plagued by amnesia. A campaign ends—win or lose—and the wisdom attained and lessons gleaned are too often forgotten as quickly as the campaign itself. “One of the mottos of the political-consulting industry is ‘Never fight the last war,’” Sabato says. “That also relieves of them learning the lessons of the last war.”
Trump is the most dangerous major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history. Let nothing I’ve written here be construed as an endorsement, tacit or otherwise, of his candidacy or his rhetoric. Much of what he has said in these final, desperate weeks is toxic, cruel, petty, irredeemable. His recent warnings of a “rigged” election are destructive to the workings of democracy itself. I want him to lose by even more than McGovern did in 1972.
But I also hope that Americans—candidates and consultants, donors, journalists, and voters; anyone with skin in the game of politics, which is to say, everyone—don’t suffer from political amnesia or write off Trump as sui generis, an aberration. I hope that the nation can learn from Trump’s run, from the results of this barium test, and find ways to heal and rebuild: to talk without jargon, to get money out of the system, to broadcast the election soberly and substantively. It could be new campaign-finance reforms that get lawmakers off the fundraising hamster wheel. It could be a new commission—run by a nonpartisan group like the Partnership for Public Service—to craft a more functional, democratic nominating process. If you want to get pie-in-the-sky about it, what about convening the heads of the TV networks at one of their Sun Valley confabs and forging an agreement to not cover presidential campaigns until the actual election year? After all, it’s not unprecedented for a media exec to consider the good of his company and the good of his country. Look at William Paley.
To borrow a line from Lyndon Johnson, the stakes are too high to not act. After decades of running U.S. campaigns, Steve Jarding, the Harvard instructor and political consultant, now consults mostly overseas. The last few years, working in the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe, he says he has heard a troubling line of reasoning. “What I’ve started to hear is: ‘America, you’re just as screwed up as anybody else. … Maybe this democracy thing is overrated.’”
“You never heard that just a few years ago,” he went on. “Now you hear it with some regularity.” The overseas leaders who want the American democratic experiment to fail, the Vladimir Putins of the world, are cheering Trump’s rise and banking on a rotted, collapsed American political system. “They love the fact that Trump’s the nominee of a major party,” Jarding says, “because the world looks at that and says: What the hell are you doing? You want us to emulate your system—and that’s your system?”