This became apparent last summer, during the initial round of Republican debates, when Donald Trump emerged like a brilliantined boulder among a slurry of would-be candidates. Treated at first as a novelty, Trump was mostly belittled by many professional observers, who assumed his bombastic lifestyle, dodgy business practices, and penchant for mean-spirited outbursts were sure to turn off potential voters.
Something similar happened during the Democratic primaries, as Bernie Sanders (“a self-proclaimed democratic socialist!”), whom most pundits figured to amount to little more than Hillary Clinton’s sparring partner, turned out to be the plain-spoken spear point of an unexpectedly popular progressive groundswell.
In both cases, the people whose job it is to keep an eye on such things and, through their commentary, suggest the broad outlines within which the candidates are expected to color their respective visions, were late in seeing the phenomenal character of what was taking place in front of them.
They seemed taken aback that Hillary Clinton, rather than some kind of charismatic juggernaut, appeared to have lost a step, and that the historic nature of her candidacy would be understood by many as less a rallying cry about the country’s future than a personal form of wish fulfillment.
As for Trump, most journalists have substituted rolling their eyes for analysis. The Donald refuses to play by their rules, refusing to articulate policy positions and saying things that are verifiably untrue (that, for example “thousands and thousands” of Muslims were dancing in the streets of Jersey City on 9/11). As for the time-honored ritual of turning over his income tax returns: forget about it.
If this behavior confounds the press, it endears Trump to a constituency that has made its disdain for reported “facts” and “evidence” superabundantly clear. The press keeps labeling these folks “angry,” but that’s the kind of understatement that reveals just how inadequate our political journalism has become.
At the Republican convention, has-been boxing promoter Don King was blunt in singing Trump’s praises: “He will create a whole new system. He will tear this system apart.” Anyone who has paid attention to Trump’s pronouncements over the past year knows this pretty much sums up his idea of governing. It’s not that Trump’s followers are angry with our system of government; they’re demanding something altogether different. Something we’ve not seen before — at least in this country.
This makes Trump’s candidacy, unlike, say, Sanders’, truly radical. His revolutionary rhetoric aside, what Sanders wants is to reform our system. Trump wants a quicker, more ruthless, reboot. It’s an important distinction but, so far, the press has been unwilling to make it, hoping instead that Trump will eventually apply for membership on a more familiar reservation, and, it should be noted, revealing their own, innate conservatism.
In the meantime, Trump makes the most of our journalism’s inability to find a vocabulary capable of adequately describing his radical ambition. This keeps him one step ahead, while making this election season feel like a car crash that can’t stop repeating itself.
If there’s one clear thing to be gleaned from this year’s Republican and Democratic conventions, it’s that American journalism is doing a good job — of making itself irrelevant.