At this moment, Donald Trump has an 85% chance of losing the election.
A few days ago, he made a threat on the life of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, that was replayed endlessly since.
I think those two facts have a lot to do with one another.
Not because Trump is feeling threatened enough to take out his rival, but because the story of this election is quickly shifting to anywhere but the actual race. And that’s a scary prospect.
Donald Trump has always prided himself on poll numbers and TV ratings more than on demonstrating any competency for the job he’s running for. I think he wants to be president, insofar as he wants to see if he can win the election by being purely himself. If he can’t, it’s probably not worth it to him to continue pursuing it. Barring some unthinkable reversal in his chances of winning, Trump’s priorities are going to remain the same as they have been thus far. He wants to be the center of attention. And he knows how to do it.
His route to capturing headlines is well established by now. Go big, be outrageous, and let the press fawn over him. He’s really no different than any reality star. Candidates for the Oval Office aren’t usually “any publicity is good publicity” kinds of guys, but Trump is. All he wants to avoid being is boring.
Coincidentally, the media feel the exact same way. This race started off as the most boring election in memory — one that Hillary was always going to win, against Jeb! or anybody else — and turned into the wackiest carnival clusterfuck in the country’s history. Trump has played an enormous role in that windfall. As such, he’s one of the most valuable media figures in decades.
What’s even crazier is that his potential as clickbait hasn’t even been tapped out yet. For as oversaturated as his name has been to those of us who follow politics, Trump’s search volume has actually been on a steady ascent for months. It pronouncedly peaked during the Republican National Convention, then went back down. The Trump charade, in other words, is still a growth asset for the media. He and the industry now devoted to covering him have an understanding: he generates, they cover, everybody watches.
But that relationship is at risk of turning from symbiosis into dependency. This election is turning into a blowout, and it’s probably going to stay a blowout. Without the horse race aspect to cover, the coverage needs to find a new angle to keep us interested.
The smart play is obvious. Some people fear that the media is going to artificially tighten the race, as if they could monolithically decide to do that, but why would they? Right under their noses is already a ratings machine the likes of which has not been seen since media transitioned from print to digital. Trump is the gift that keeps on clicking, and his full potential hasn’t even been tapped yet. So they’re going to continue to rely on him for press coverage.
That’s a problem. Trump is going to be feeling the need to get bigger, louder, and more outrageous at the same time as the media is going to amplify his message even more attentively. They’re going to end up relentlessly publicizing a man who is on a personal quest to always get more and more over the top. We’ve seen some of the risk of this mission creep already.
Take this “second amendment people” incident from Tuesday. Now, I know what the guy said. He made an offhand comment that fleetingly seemed to authorize the assassination of his political opponent. (And by the way, if you lack evidence that his comment was taken to imply violence even in the context of a long and rambling speech, look at the guy in red to Trump’s right at the 0:18 mark. Even he is like, “wow this guy is nuts, I should have stuck to the Westboro Baptist Church.”)
But I don’t think he meant to say what he did. I don’t think he went onstage yesterday having formulated a statement, on any topic, that was worthy of the exegesis his now-famous line has undergone. It’s unacceptable for him to have made a remark about the political assassination of Hillary Clinton — worse yet, on the grounds of his overt lie about her intentions with gun rights — but I can’t help seeing this through the lens of a guy who has been rewarded for speaking opportunistically and imprecisely for months. I think Trump’s default mode of syntax is to make a statement and follow it up with an impulsive embellishment. This was one. Again: disqualifying for participation in American politics — which doesn’t really change his status in my book — but a comment very much of a piece with how he always talks.
And for as shocked as I was when I heard it, I was actually more turned off by the mileage I saw the media getting out of the incident. It combined everything Trump into one TV opportunity: a chance for both presenter and viewer to share in a secure sense of superiority, an “important” topic that compelled viewers, an entertaining moment of frisson that kept a video on loop. This was a winner for newsrooms across the political spectrum.
But the coverage also worked against its stated purpose of condemning his words. Instead, it just amplified them. Rolling Stone ran a great take on the incident that described it as an act of “stochastic terrorism,” which is the term for when a political bomb-thrower uses rhetoric that doesn’t directly incite violence, but which will predictably motivate a lone nutjob somewhere to follow through. The takeaway is that the more people who hear Trump’s call to arms, the more likely it is that the thing feared by all the coverage will come to pass.
You could almost argue that the danger in promoting this story to a wider audience outweighs the news benefits of reporting it. I mean, what did we learn? That Trump will say anything onstage and endorse the use of violence? We already knew both. For the price of watching him hit yet another new low, we are now openly talking about the murder of Hillary Clinton. Great.
Many will be quick to defend the newsworthiness of this story. It had to be covered, they’ll say. And fine, I agree. But the reason it had to be covered is that the man who encouraged lethal violence is a major party nominee for president. And the only reason that man is in that position, let’s never forget, is because of the relentless media coverage he’s been getting for almost two years now.
Sure, he has a message that resonates with the lowest common denominator in America. But he’s also gotten $2 billion in free media coverage and absolutely dominated the election for its duration. He was a novelty candidate who was too valuable for the press to transition away from, and he just kept showing up on TV. With credibility sneakily accumulating, visibility translated into poll standing translated into primary victories. And now here we are: as the nominee, the story shifts to “this is outrageous behavior for a full-fledged nominee!” But the substance is no different, and the rhetoric no more odious, than it has ever been.
I don’t lament the fact that an American candidate threatened his opponent with assassination. I lament the fact that we let a guy become the nominee who will say anything that occurs to him.
I lament the fact that when a reality show character speaks, the entire news media covers it relentlessly because of the perch they’ve placed him on.
I lament the fact that every new dangerous thing Trump says for the next two months is going to be repeated breathlessly by a media who needs him to keep saying it. I lament the fact that we’re still talking about Donald Trump, for christ’s sake.
Forget about this election being about policy, or philosophy, or even identity. Instead, this election is turning into Borat-like culture jamming, an exploration of the depths of decorum in American politics. Maybe the system deserves it. Maybe we deserve it. Either way, it’s on us to keep it from becoming normal. If the media wanted to help, they could start by covering Trump on terms befitting a candidate for the White House — policy details, geopolitical knowledge — and not on the terms of their still mutually beneficial relationship.