A while back, Chris Hayes hosted a Facebook chat where he was asked a question about why MSNBC airs Lock Up, a show about life in prison, for hours on end during the weekend when the network, in the questioner’s view, should be airing news or talk. Hayes’s answer, as is his wont, was rational, thought through, and a bit contrarian. Essentially, he said that Lock Up is a ratings winner for the network, indeed, the show’s viewership was greater than Hayes’s eponymous weeknight show, and that you should not presume that just because you think a program is lowest-common-denominator and a waste of time, that others feel the same.
I have been thinking about this question and answer in the context of the all-consuming political Berserker that is Donald Trump. You see, the endless hours of cable TV time, column inches in print and online, and predictable “this will be the end of Trump” thought pieces have done nothing to stop Trump’s rise. If anything, he is stronger now than the day he entered the race for President, with much bombast (and predictions of his immediate demise) declaring the need to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
What is being missed, either intentionally or through ignorance, is the phenomenon that Hayes neatly captured – what is said along the Acela Corridor or on Meet The Press by journalists and pundits who consume political conventional wisdom like oxygen is far removed from the “ordinary” Americans in fly-over country who have fueled Trump’s rise. Trump has broken every rule of politics and not paid a penalty for it and the people who analyze it are unable to interpret it because they cannot see why he is getting away with it. And they cannot see that because they are not willing to admit there is a virulent strain of nativism, racism, and xenophobia that courses through the veins of today’s Republican Party. To the Beltway crowd, the problem is a lack of bi-partisanship exemplified by Obama’s failure to invite Republicans to the White House for cocktail hour or Senators no longer getting all chummy after hours.
This facile diagnosis of what ails us ignores the extreme rightward tilt in the Republican Party that would run off Ronald Reagan (he of the 1986 “amnesty” law, tax increases, and “cut and run” strategy in Lebanon). And this anger should not come as a surprise to anyone. It was less than six years ago that Tea Party activists shouted down their elected officials at town hall meetings, bought into right-wing paranoia over “death panels,” and protested against the Affordable Care Act waiving signs that depicted the President as a bone-in-his-nose witch doctor, Adolf Hitler or Heath Ledger’s Joker. That same virulent strain of bigotry and intolerance that still questions the President’s birth place or religion is simply being transferred to fears over people illegally entering our country and Muslims.
Of course, Trump may not get to the finish line, but the media downplays the fact that many of his competitors are simply peddling a lightly sanitized version of his basest prejudices. Whether it is Ben Carson’s opinion that a Muslim should not be President, Marco Rubio’s call not just to close mosques but places where “radicals” might congregate (as if they would hold up a sign or something?), Ted Cruz’s effort to allow states to “opt out” of accepting Syrian refugees, Jeb Bush’s call to only allow Syrian refugees who are Christians into the country, or Rand Paul’s proposed legislation that would bar immigration from 32 majority Muslim countries, these ideas all traffic on the same side of the street, but are just a click or two to the “left” of temporarily barring any Muslim from America.
For almost six months, the media has dismissed Trump’s rise as a novelty act that would wear thin or an ego that would implode. Instead of continuing to discount or denigrate his campaign, the media would be far better served trying to understand why he is doing so well and not simply fulminating against it.