So the question of the moment is: Did the media create Donald Trump?
Nick Kristof, at the New York Times, hauled out the flail and performed the ritual liberal-media self-flagellation on Sunday: “We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans,” he writes, “and thus didn’t appreciate how much [Trump’s] message resonated.” As he has it, a cynical middle-class—middle-class? let’s move on—press, ignorant of conditions outside its elitist bubble and happy to pump some #content from what it saw as the latest in a line of entertainingly bonkers but ultimately harmless novelty candidates, blithely amplified Trump’s voice in what it should have recognized was the precise wrong moment to do so, and so enabled the rise of Cheeto Mussolini.
“We in the media,” he writes, “empowered a demagogue and failed the country.”
This majestic plural—by my count deployed 23 times in “we,” “us,” and “our” form in Kristof’s 900-word column—is a neat bit of rhetorical gerrymandering, dispersing wild diversities of power and reach and journalistic dereliction into one flat, blank edifice: “We in the media,” due what the headline labels “shared shame.” One can imagine why the New York Times, in particular, might prefer this construct over, just to imagine a random hypothetical alternative, something like This uniquely powerful newspaper’s 2016 campaign coverage has failed in the following specific ways and/or at the following junctures. Thusly do the tone and gestures of abject self-excoriation do the work of letting everybody off the hook.
Plenty else is wrong with Kristof’s argument, of course. As Brendan O’Connor points out over at our sister site, Trump’s meager support outside of a narrow and well-defined demographic sector calls into question the premise that he’s been all that “empowered” in the first place; as Esquire’s Charlie Pierce notes, the parties in “we in the media” who do bear responsibility for Trump are implicated not so much by the coverage he’s received over the past nine months as by decades of uncritical engagement with the various irresponsible lunatics who steered the Republican Party toward, and then into, the dire orange ditch in which it now finds itself. There’s also the problem of Trump himself—at least as much an actor in this drama as the acted-upon—who earns barely a mention as a facilitator of his own rise in either Kristof’s original piece or those two critical responses or in the others like them.
Donald Trump is a lot of things: a buffoon; a bigot; a hater of women; a demagogue; an actual hot dog that speaks. But more than anything else— certainly more than he is a “real estate developer” or “businessman”—he is a huckster. Manipulating the media to promote himself is his life’s work! It’s the only thing he’s any good at, and he is good at it.
Consider his business empire (such as it is), which consists pretty much entirely of him putting his name and branding on other people’s developments. Do you know how many of those developments have succeeded or failed? Do you know how much profit Donald Trump has actually made off those deals, or how his record compares to any other wealthy investor’s, or what the context within which you’d judge his business acumen is? Can you even name a single particularly successful deal he has made? Odds are that “No” is your answer to all of the above. It’s almost everybody’s answer to all of the above. And yet, for decades before this election cycle, Donald Trump was without question the most famous “businessman” in America—his name basically was shorthand for slick, high-stakes, big-city moneymaking.
That’s his doing! “The media” did not arbitrarily pluck Donald Trump from among New York City’s many thousands of shameless profiteering weasels and designate him for global celebrity. For more than 40 goddamn years—beginning with his well-publicized run-ins with the Justice Department over Fair Housing Act violations in the 1970s, through the publicly conducted marriage dramas that kept him a tabloid fixture through the ’80s, through his beauty pageants, well-publicized flirtations with electoral politics, forays into pro wrestling and reality television, excruciatingly bad Comedy Central roast, etc. etc.—he has shown a remarkable knack for drawing scornful and/or disdainful and/or prurient media attention to himself and leveraging that attention into yet more attention. Say what you will about the man, he has a true gift in this one area.
The dynamic he has exploited is a simple one: In exchange for access to his entertainingly shameless heel act, nearly all levels and sectors of media have, for longer than I have been alive, happily deferred to—echoed, even!—his presentation of himself as a high-powered, gold-plated winner. He understands the incentives at least as well as, and almost certainly much better than, Nick Kristof does. A messy divorce, retrograde sexual politics, flatly ludicrous proposals about how to limit immigration—all of the above are interesting, even newsworthy, when posed by a big-time mover-and-shaker. And a big-time mover-and-shaker is even more interesting, even more newsworthy, when he’s not a sober Captain of Industry, but a blustery, shit-talking gabagool Foghorn Leghorn.
At a certain point—and we can debate when exactly Donald Trump reached it, so long as we agree that he reached it long before “we in the media” gave his 2016 presidential candidacy more free press than Nick Kristof thinks “we” should have—that latter gained a momentum of its own, as it survived the sleazy, disreputable particulars of each successive iteration of the Trump Brand. And once that point was passed, fresh instances of wrestling-heel bluster and/or outright villainy not only didn’t tarnish his image, they burnished it. To people who dig his act, and even to people who don’t but get what it’s about, he’s the guy to whom consequences do not apply, saying and doing whatever the fuck he wants. He’s Stone Cold with a hilariously bad combover.
All Trump has done, from a certain angle, is impose his gimmick on what just happens to have been the weakest, most scattered Republican primary field in living memory. His strong polling numbers, celebrity, and sheer ridiculousness brought him a double-shot of the sort of amused, distracted, “Huh, get a load of this bozo” media attention any early novelty candidate gets, but given his experience with The Media, he responded not how a careerist electoral politician would—refiguring himself on the fly as a blandly electable statesperson—but as the inveterate lifelong huckster he is, unbeholden to the solemn fiction that an American presidential campaign is a Serious, Sacred Rite Of Democracy. He leveraged the attention for more attention. He pawned one news cycle to buy the next one.
He said he was gonna build a fabulous, really top-notch wall along the southern U.S. border, and have the Mexican government pay for it. He doxed Lindsey Graham’s phone number; then, when Gawker published his own, his campaign programmed it to play a promotional message. He blamed Megyn Kelly’s pointed questions on her angry vagina. He called John McCain a loser for getting shot down during the Vietnam War. He called for banning Muslims from entering the United States. And so on and so on, ad infinitum.
The media—“The Media”—has no choice but to cover these things. Of course it has no choice! The feedback loop is a vortex. The frontrunner saying outrageous and/or offensive shit is news; him remaining the frontrunner afterward is news; him seizing upon that attention to say the next outrageous and/or offensive thing is news. This isn’t the media “failing,” it’s the media doing its job, and Donald Trump understanding better than any other national politician in my lifetime that—insofar as “the media” can be described as one unified thing—its essential bias isn’t ideological, but sensory. The Media likes things that are not boring. Everyone does.
The media didn’t create Donald Trump, any more than a camera created Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It isn’t a mind, and it isn’t a soul. It is, quite literally, media. Donald Trump has used the hell out of it.