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For many months now, like the anxious producers of some hot reality show, the American media has been waiting for Donald Trump to get up onstage and say the one thing that will lead to his swift and inevitable unraveling. (Waiting is not quite the same as hoping, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
Sometimes it seems that Trump himself is trying frantically to find that edge of acceptable rhetoric and hurl himself over it, maybe because this business of running for president is a lot more tedious and exhausting than, say, crowning Miss Universe.
This week, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Trump told an audience in Michigan that Hillary Clinton had been “schlonged” in 2008 (a variation on the Yiddish word for penis that he seems to have invented on the spot, but that is now assured to outlive the Yiddish language itself), and he made fun of Clinton’s bizarre habit — “too disgusting to talk about” — of having to occasionally relieve herself in a bathroom.
He also clarified his difference with Vladimir Putin when it comes to these “lying, disgusting” reporters who cover him. “I hate some of these people, but I would never kill them,” Trump volunteered. “I would never kill them. But I do hate them.”
Well, that does it. If granting journalists a right to live doesn’t puncture Trump’s standing among conservative voters these days, then trust me, pretty much nothing will.
(By the way, note that Trump didn’t actually go so far as to condemn such violence, or even discourage it. He just declined to kill anyone himself. The man is busy.)
It’s time for me to admit I was wrong about Trump’s staying power. And it’s time for the rest of my industry to take a long look in the mirror and consider what we’ve wrought.
Because it’s clear now that Trump’s enduring popularity — his relentless assault on the weathered pillars of our public civility — is in no small part a reflection of an acid disdain for us.
Trump has always understood this. Look at the graphic terms in which he once attacked Fox’s Megyn Kelly. Or the way he viciously mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who excels despite a physical disability. Or how he publicly berated Katy Tur, an NBC reporter, for sport.
Playing off the media isn’t novel, of course. When George H.W. Bush ran for reelection back in 1992, somebody — maybe it was his campaign, since in those days there weren’t any super-PACS — made a bumper sticker that read “Annoy the media. Re-elect Bush.”
For many years after Bush lost, you could still see those bumper stickers on any highway in America. It had little to do with the candidate.
But that was a statement on liberalism and elitism, a kind of cultural homogeneity inside the nation’s largest media institutions. It was almost respectful. Bush would never have used the word “hate,” and neither would the people with the bumper stickers.
This is something more visceral, an emotion that’s been building in all segments of the electorate, to some extent, for decades.
This is a simmering reaction to smugness and shallowness in the media, a parade of glib punditry unmoored to any sense of history or personal experience. It’s about our love of gaffes and scandals, real or imagined, and our rigid enforcement of the politically correct.
It’s about the reflexive partisan fury we’ve been inciting in this country ever since the earliest days of cable TV, and more recently on the blogs and op-ed pages of newspapers that once set the standard for thoughtful deliberation but now need the clicks to survive.
But more than any of that, as I’ve written before in my columns and in my book about a pivotal moment in 1988, it’s about the transformation of political coverage into sheer entertainment. We treat our candidates like contestants, creating narrative arcs for them that are intended to suck you in for the next episode, even as we set the traps and obstacles that make the journey suspenseful and usually ill fated.
We order up reams of mostly worthless polls, so we can show who’s impressed the judges and who needs a breakout performance in order to move on to the knockout rounds. We create — literally — NCAA-style brackets for the primaries so we can project fantasy matchups. We issue — literally — report cards to let you know who’s got the best one-liners and who best acts the role of a potential president.
We even structure our presidential debates — who gets to come, who stands where on stage — around the latest poll numbers, making no pretense of the idea that we’re after anything deeper than fleeting measurements of popularity.
We create, as the visionary writer Neil Postman predicted 30 years ago, a show masquerading as serious civic business. And all of it as plainly detached from daily reality, from the anxieties American workers and parents have confronted for a generation now, as it is from the quest for nuclear fusion.
And yet somehow, when the perfect and professional reality-show star comes along, utterly lost on policy but brilliant at harnessing resentment in long, incredibly watchable tirades, observers like me think his success must be short-lived. Why?
(And before you tell me Trump is more qualified to be president than a first-term senator from Illinois was, consider his final answer, after much evasion, when asked about the country’s “nuclear triad” in the last debate: “I just think nuclear — the power and the devastation are very important to me.”)
Trump is entirely different from a Barry Goldwater or a Pat Buchanan. He isn’t a conservative populist penned in by the outer boundaries of what’s politically constructive, bred ultimately to admire the same institutions he assails. I don’t think Trump has any fierce political conviction that couldn’t be abandoned overnight, just as fiercely.
Trump is an emotional extremist. He’s a pure performer, trained to manipulate the audience and mindful of no consequence beyond the ratings it produces.
And in this way, truth be told, he’s hardly any different from the reporters and media executives whose very lives he can barely roust himself to defend.
By now, it’s clear there’s a powerful symbiosis between Trump and the media. We need him for the narrative power, for the clicks and debate ratings and sheer fascination factor. He needs us for the free publicity and the easy, evocative foil.
Trump’s most useful opponent, the one who causes his most fervent following to stick, isn’t Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or even Hillary Clinton. It’s us.
So when I say there’s a difference between waiting and hoping, this is what I mean. This is the essential paradox that the American media has created for itself, and you can feel it becoming less and less tenable right now.
On one hand, we’re bewildered by the reality that a man can so debase our politics and continue to rise in polls, as if all the rules we’ve inherited and enforced are no longer remotely relevant. But at the same time, we need our standout contestant to hang around for sweeps week. He’s the star of the show.
We want to see Trump get “schlonged” for the same reasons we can’t bear to lose him, and he understands that dynamic better than anyone alive.
Do I think Trump is going to be the Republican nominee? No, I don’t. At the end of the day, I still tend to think he won’t win a single state. But I’ve been wrong about him so far, and I’ve very little confidence that I won’t keep being wrong for a while.
It’s clear that those of us who cover politics have only a limited understanding of how powerful and pervasive an antipathy now exists toward us in some sizable quarter of the electorate, and how deftly it can be used. The media that created Trump is now at his mercy, and he didn’t have to kill anyone to get here.
(Cover tile photo: Carlos Osorio/AP)