According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 32 percent of registered Republicans and voters who lean Republican favor Donald Trump. And 34 percent of registered Democrats and Democratic leaners support Bernie Sanders.
Why am I telling you this? Because members of the political press are having a collective nervous breakdown over their inability to shake Trump’s support despite his lies about “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and his overall thuggish behavior. So keep those poll numbers in mind, because I’ll come back to them in a few moments. First, though, I want to discuss the angst that has broken out within the pundit class.
The redoubtable media observer Jay Rosen, author of the blog PressThink, wrote about the Trump phenomenon earlier this week. “The laws of political gravity” never actually existed, Rosen argued, and the Trump campaign has merely exposed that fact:
The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them—and he is still leading in the polls…. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?
In an interview Sunday on Effective Radio with Bill Samuels, New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta expressed the conventional view of how the media have enabled Trump’s rise—the “embarrassing” amount of attention they’ve given him in order to goose ratings and the obsessive attention paid to polls at a time when few ordinary Americans can even name non-celebrity candidates such as Chris Christie or John Kasich. “You’ve just got to give it time,” Auletta said, “but the press is so desperate to create narrative and to make competition exciting.”
Trump’s making fun of a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski, and his easily debunked claimthat he didn’t know Kovaleski was disabled, seems to have struck nerve. No, it wasn’t the first time Trump had gone after a journalist. Earlier he had attacked Megyn Kelly of Fox News and Jorge Ramos of Univision. But Trump’s cruel imitation of Kovaleski’s twisted hands was so outrageous that—to return to Rosen’s theme—it would have ended his candidacy if the “laws of political gravity” actually existed.
In a commentary for the NewsGuild of New York website, union president Peter Szekely urged his fellow reporters to stay away from the “he said-she said” treatment. “Here’s my message to reporters covering Trump,” Szekely wrote. “The reporter-mocking incident will be regurgitated numerous times going forward. When you report on it, you’ll need to mention that Trump denied it, of course. But you saw the video. You heard the words. You know the truth. Don’t hide from it.”
Now, of course, Trump’s rise has been real—more real than I and most other political observers had expected. But let me offer some perspective. In fact, what we are seeing is the acceleration of a trend in the Republican nominating process that began in 2008, when the establishment candidate, John McCain, was nearly hounded out of the campaign for insufficient wing-nuttery before coming back to win the nomination.
Four years ago, Michele Bachmann had a few moments in the sun before fading. The front cover of Newsweek for October 24, 2011, featured a smiling image of Herman Cain(remember him?) giving the thumb’s-up. The cover line: “Yes We Cain!” Well, no he couldn’t.
Which brings me back to those poll numbers. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is trailing Hillary Clinton by the considerable margin of 60 percent to 34 percent. In other words, Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has consolidated the one-third of Democratic voters who will always support the most left-wing candidate. Unlike Trump, Sanders is a serious person with serious ideas. He also seems to have succeeded in pushing Clinton to the left of her comfort zone. But no one except true believers expects Sanders to be sworn in on January 20, 2017.
Trump, if you ignore the margin of error (and you shouldn’t, but never mind), is actually doing less well among Republicans than Sanders is among Democrats. But on the Republican side, with a huge field of contenders, 32 percent is enough to lead the field. At some point, establishment support is going to coalesce around one or two candidates, and Trump’s hold on a quarter to a third of the Republican electorate is going to look a lot less impressive. Marco Rubio would appear to be the most likely beneficiary of this process. But even Jeb Bush looks no more hapless than Mitt Romney did in late 2011.
In a recent analysis for The Wall Street Journal, Dante Chinni, a political scientist at Michigan State University, found that support for the establishment Republican candidates during the current campaign mirrors Romney’s in late 2011. It wasn’t until January 2012, Chinni noted, that Romney started to achieve liftoff.
“If that establishment vote comes together by January,” Chinni wrote, “the leading establishment candidate can win delegates in the early primaries and caucuses, which start in February, and build momentum.”
In September, Trump told a crowd gathered in Washington to oppose the nuclear agreement with Iran, “We will have so much winning when I get elected that you will get bored with winning.”
So much winning. In fact, Trump is not winning, and he’s not going to win. Members of the political press may wring their hands over their inability to convince Trump’s supporters that his lies, his outrageous statements, and even his flirtation with fascismshould disqualify him from the presidency. But the overwhelming majority of the public wants nothing to do with Trump.
I don’t think the media deserve the credit for Trump’s low ceiling. But I certainly don’t believe the press should be blamed for Trump’s continuing support among a minority of one of our two major parties. To paraphrase what Joseph Kennedy once said about his son Bobby (as reported by Robert Caro), they love him because he hates like they hate. That’s not going to change—but neither is it going to get him elected.