London-By any standards Donald J Trump, the Republican Party nominee for the US presidency is a hard character to cast. This is the lesson that, with less than two months to Election Day, the American media are just beginning to grapple with. The result is a mixture of revulsion, concern and, increasingly, resignation.
The American media’s approach to the Trump phenomenon came in three stages.In the first stage, he was regarded as an uninvited guest who had gate-crashed the party but soon would be shown the door. In the meantime, he was proving entertaining, so why not have a laugh at his corny jokes before he was escorted out.
That attitude meant that the media, especially television, gave Trump massive coverage as an entertainer adding color and spice to dull primaries. According to one estimate cited by the Washington Post, the free media coverage given to Trump was worth over $100 million in TV advertising expenditure.
At the end of the first phase, Trump had become a household name across America while the 16 other Republican hopefuls gradually faded into the background, dropping out of the race one after another.
The first rule of propaganda applied to Trump: It doesn’t matter what people say about you; what matters is that they talk about you! By the time the second phase had started it had become clear that Trump would win the Republican nomination.
To their amazement, media pundits realized that the “buffoon with the hair of a blow-dried dog” as one New York Times wit called him, had forced himself on the banquet as a top table guest.The second phase, therefore, consisted of a concerted effort by the media lynch mob to hang Trump from the first possible tree.
The sympathetic, though mocking, tone of the first phase was replaced by a tone of foreboding about what “this loose cannon” might do to America were he to become president. The fear in the background was that the fugitive facing the lynch mob may end up becoming the sheriff himself.
The media threw everything it found at Trump. The fact that he had been divorced three times and that he had had his share of bimbo blunders was hammered in to discourage Bible-belt barons from backing him. He was accused of having sold fake degrees through his fake university, been driven out of Texas after an undecided fraud case, and, worse still, having hired legions of illegal Mexican immigrants to build some of his urban monstrosities.
Nude photos of his latest wife, apparently of Russian origin, were put in circulation with reports that she had once worked as an escort girl. To make the military dislike him, the story was put out that he had greased some paws to get exemption from military service in war-torn Vietnam. Efforts were made to link him to Russian President Vladimir Putin or even the Russian Mafia amid reports that Moscow might hack electoral machines in the US to inflate the number of votes for Trump.
Trump’s naïve but scandalous utterances regarding Muslims, blacks and Hispanics were cynically exploited to mobilize the “coalition of minorities” that helped twice elect Barack Obama.
However, none of those tactics worked. Trump proved to have more of the Teflon quality than even Ronald Reagan who had faced a similar media lynch mob in 1979. In a sense Trump was in a more precarious position than Reagan had been.
For decades, the big US media have been divided across undeclared but clear partisan lines. Of the nation’s six most widely circulated newspapers, the New York Times, the Los-Angeles Times and the Washington Post are in the “blue” or Democrat corner. In the “red” or Republican corner are The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, with USA Today adopting median positions. As far as television is concerned, almost all the traditional channels, plus the satellite channel CNN are sympathetic to the Democrats while Fox News is the voice of the Republicans.
This time, however, Trump was unable even to win the support of the pro-Republican segments of the media. The best that that segment could do was to give Trump a break, without, however, taking him seriously as a politician.
Even then, there was little effort to study and analyze Trump’s policies, or rants disguised as policies, in a sober and clinical manner. The bulk of the media still preferred to jeer while Trump’s core base continued to cheer him on. When the New York Post run an essay analyzing some aspects of Trump’s foreign policy, the high mandarins of American punditry expressed outrage that he was treated as if he had a brain.
With the projected presidential debate just weeks away, a third phase has started with regard to the media’s approach to Trump. One could call this phase “learn to enjoy your toothache” in case the threat becomes reality.
In the “what if Trump becomes President” game, the emphasis is no longer on “if”. One loses count of pundits who have penned numerous articles apologizing for early assertions that “never, never, never” could Donald J Trump sit where George Washington once sat.
Currently, one could detect a grudgingly admiring tone in some of the anti-Trump media, notably The New York Times and the many news sites ran by radical Democrats. They note Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination without a properly organized campaign machine and against the combined force of his party’s establishment. Moreover, he secured victory by spending proportionately less than his rivals and, despite his cheeky claims, without dipping into his own pocket.
In the primaries, Trump used the tactic known as The Tennessee Turkey shoot in which the hunter shoots the leading bird in a flight of birds thus causing all to scatter in confusion which gives him an opportunity to shoot the others. (A variant of this is to shoot the laggard and continue one by one to the leading bird.)
Thus, Trump started by focusing all his attacks on Jeb Bush, the best known of the Republican hopefuls whose father and brother had both been presidents. Initially, all other Republican candidates refrained from attacking Trump, thinking that once he had driven Bush out of the race they would be able to tackle “the comedian” with ease.
But by driving Bush out of the race, Trump had cast himself as “the giant killer”, casting the other Republican hopefuls as a chorus of resentful midgets.
Right now, the bulk of the US media is steering clear of predictions regarding the outcome of the election. Trump is no longer dismissed as a certain loser if only because his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is equally unpopular. The impression is that while the bulk of the media, including a good portion of the traditional pro-Republican newspapers and TV and radio outlets, pray that Trump doesn’t win, they are quietly preparing to live with the nightmare.