Saturday, March 19, 2016

Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead?, Rebooted (now, with extra lens flare!)

Time to bring this one back, but with a question mark.  I started a "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series to demonstrate all the ways that Trump's success in the Republican primaries has upended conventional political science.  Now, let's talk about all the ways he may upend conventional political science in the general election.

For a first installment, let's begin with the media.  I wrote a paper last year about the constraints placed on neutral media outlets by partisan media.  The basic problem is this:  neutral media demonstrate their supposed lack of bias by treating all political conflict as symmetric.  Democrats and Republicans are equally extreme, equally right, equally wrong, and equally guilty of all political sins.  The problem is that this isn't always true.  What should the neutral press do when it isn't?  They can either acknowledge the asymmetry and be accused of bias, thereby nullifying the criticism, or they can pretend that everything is symmetric and perpetuate the asymmetry.

Consider liars.  There is a ridiculous rule in politics that we aren't even supposed to call a liar, "a liar."  It's impolite, or something.  Cuz', ya' know, calling someone "a teller of statements that contain intentional factual inaccuracies" is better.

And the press isn't supposed to point out when one side tells more egregious lies.  Which brings us to Donald Trump, who rose to political prominence by telling everyone that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  Donald Trump is a liar of a different caliber, and we all know it.

More importantly, the press knows it.  Every serious journalist knows that Barack Obama was born in Hawai'i.  Every serious journalist knows that when Donald Trump claimed to have an investigative team in Honolulu uncovering astonishing things, he was lying like that cheap rug on his head.  And when it happened, nobody except the most brazenly partisan observers felt any need to pretend that Trump wasn't lying.  Will he continue telling lies of that caliber?  Certainly.

And what will the press do?  On one hand, there is the norm of neutrality that the unaligned press are supposed to observe, which requires pretending that Trump is no more dishonest than any conventional politician.  On the other, this is Donald Trump.

Three factors separate him from past nominees:  the brazenness of his lies, the rejection by so many within his own party, and actual, literal violence towards the press.  All three factors increase the likelihood that the unaligned press subject Trump to more scrutiny, and admit that he is more dishonest than conventional politicians.

Let's start with the brazenness.  Calling someone a "liar" is verboten, for reasons that I still don't understand.  But, claiming that Obama was born in Kenya is such a brazen lie that nobody in the press could take it seriously.  Hillary Clinton will bring it up.  A lot.  It will help motivate African-American turnout.  She will force the press to cover it again.  At that point, will the press begin to pretend that the birthers might be onto something?  Or, will it set the stage for Trump to be treated differently?  I don't know.

Next, party rejection.  Normally, a party rallies around its nominee, and will defend its nominee to matter what.  Will the party rally around Trump?  Well, we have never seen anything like the Stop Trump movement.  There has never been a nominee so completely despised by the leading figures in his party.  If Republican elites don't start rallying around Trump soon, they will make it acceptable for the neutral press to call Trump a liar (or some synonym based on this idiotic rule) based on the premise that "even so-and-so calls Trump a liar."  When the nominee's own party is divided, calling the candidate a liar no longer looks purely partisan.

Finally, Trump's relationship with the press.  Most journalists are liberals.  Let's just admit it.  Outside of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and a few other outlets, the mainstream press leans Democratic.  That doesn't mean Republicans are subject to some sort of conspiracy, and the extent to which journalists' personal preferences affect their news coverage is debatable.  But, most journalists lean left.  And Republicans perpetuate this by constantly attacking the press.

Journalists don't just dislike Trump, though.  They hate him with a passion.  Part of it is Trump's brazen dishonesty, part of it is the general tenor of his campaign, and an increasing part of it is his treatment of the press.  One of the things we all need to acknowledge about Trump is that he can't take criticism.  At all.  By anyone.  Ever.  Hence, this moment:

And of course it gets worse.  Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, physically grabbed Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields to eject her from an event, and did so with enough force to leave bruises.  Breitbart.  These are Trump's allies, but any criticism cannot be tolerated, according to Trump.

What does this do to media norms?  All Republicans complain about media bias, but Trump's campaign escalates this to not just the kinds of remarks Trump made about Megyn Kelly, but to physical violence.  And remember, these incidents were towards a Fox News reporter, and a Breitbart reporter.

Will the press abide by the convention of pretending all candidates are equally guilty of all sins?  Or, will Trump's behavior continue to be so belligerent that none of the major press figures can contain their intense hatred for the man?

In 2008 and 2012, it was pretty clear that the press liked Obama more than they liked McCain or Romney.  Let's not pretend otherwise.  In the case of the former, it was just that they liked Obama more than they liked McCain.  In Romney's case, they pretty clearly disliked the man.  Trump, though?  This will be a level of hostility between the press and one nominee that we have never seen before.

So, there are at least three reasons to think the neutral press will subject Trump to more open hostility than journalistic norms generally allow.  Will it happen?  We'll see.  What effect might it have?  Again, we'll see.  One way or another, the Trump campaign continues to break from old patterns in ways we need to acknowledge.

I promise, Part II of the rebooted series will not involve Khan.  Really, why don't you believe me?  John Harrison.  Not Khan.

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