By: Madison Friend
Well, summer has ended, but despite hope by many in the GOP, the once-unimaginable presidential campaign of Donald Trump has not. Our most reliable news anchors and beltway pundits have for months been assuring us that the arrival of September would herald a new phase in the race for the GOP nomination, one in which likely Republican primary voters would trade in their “Make America Great Again” ballcaps for the more sober merchandise of Kasich or Walker, end their summer fling with “The Donald,” and look to future presidential prospects slightly less bombastic than the billionaire businessman.
That hasn’t happened. In fact, disregarding Trump’s campaign this way has only made him a more formidable contender for the GOP nomination. His supporters haven’t been dissuaded by the media’s squawking that he’s “not a serious candidate” because his lack of involvement with establishment politics is exactly what they like about him (look to runners-up Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina for proof of that).
The unwillingness of his opponents and the media to either take Trump seriously or strongly condemn his antics, coupled with their relentless denial of the strength of his campaign, only cements his status as the anti-establishment underdog in the eyes of his supporters. His willingness to say exactly what he’s thinking at any given time, political correctness be damned, has endeared him to an angry base of Republican voters that can no longer stand the flip-flop brand of politics they feel has become the party standard. It’s indicative of how deep that disappointment runs when even the most racist and sexist of ideas, expressed with genuine righteous anger by a white billionaire businessman, seem this refreshing to so many.
Despite controversies of the sort that would have immediately toppled the campaign of any other candidate (“immigrants are rapists,” “McCain isn’t a war hero,” “Megyn Kelly is a bimbo”), Trump only rises in the polls. It’s alarming that a man with so little respect for women, immigrants, the press, and his fellow candidates is now considered a serious contender for the Republican nomination, and, by extension, the office of the presidency. (Think it’s impossible for him to win the general election? Think again – in a new poll from SurveyUSA, Trump beats Clinton, Sanders, and Biden in head-to-head match-ups.)
Of course, if you thought the situation couldn’t get more alarming, you were wrong. Donald Trump is what I imagine the GOP sees when it looks in a funhouse mirror – a loud, gaffe-prone mash-up of various anti-sentiments (anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-poor, etc.) disguised as the pursuit of freedom and growth. The whole idea might be better encapsulated by the Walker campaign’s vague slogan, “REFORM. GROWTH. SAFETY.” (Reform what? Growth where? Safety how?) But if Donald Trump is one projection, and Walker another, each of the other 15 candidates constitutes their own manifestation of modern Republicanism, manifestations that are often just as narrow-minded as Trump’s, but are getting far less media attention.
Why is this so dangerous? Because while we’ve all been busy hoping that someone or something will bring Trump down in the next five months (which, again, doesn’t look like it’s going to happen), we’ve neglected to consider the possible alternatives to “The Donald” winning the GOP nomination.
Who, then, is more reasonable an alternative? Jeb Bush, beholden as he is to Wall Street and Big Industry? Chris Christie, who can’t seem to decide whether or not he believes in climate change? Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, or Mike Huckabee, who have all issued statements of support for Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed for refusing to perform the duties of her government office by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples? (This last instance proves particularly problematic because it sends the unequivocal message that were these men elected, they would have no problem opting out of presidential duties they opposed on so-called “moral grounds.” Imagine Obama opting out of commander-in-chief duties because God told him war was immoral, or the same clerk refusing to issue hunting licenses because of a staunch commitment to veganism.)
More dangerous than Trump is our willingness, as a society, to allow ourselves to be distracted by him from more important issues. Let’s consider one aspect of the media circus that is the Trump campaign – the Huffington Post’s decision to cover it as entertainment and not politics. The blog’s Washington Bureau Chief and Editorial Director issued a short joint statement of explanation that boiled down to this line: “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait.”
But what distinguishes Trump’s campaign from that of other GOP nominee hopefuls? Are his vitriolic espousals somehow worse than his colleagues’ failures to denounce them? The Huffington Post’s decision to move their coverage of Trump to the entertainment section of their publication might have been meant as a message that they don’t take his campaign seriously, but that their most recent piece on Trump was penned by their Associate Politics Editor (though it did still appear in the entertainment section) seems to undermine that stance. The move – which probably stems more from fear of obsoletion on the part of the traditional news media as a whole than any desire to take a firm political stance on the race, for what use does our society have for traditional political analysts and talking heads when the rules of traditional politics no longer seem to apply? – really only plays to Trump’s strengths as an entertainer, instead of taking him to task for his failures as a politician.
Anyone born in this country has the right to run for any public office. It’s not for the Huffington Post to determine the legitimacy of Trump’s campaign (they tried to; they were wrong) but to report on it in a respectful way that matches the approach they take to every other potential nominee.
If the idea were to illustrate how ridiculous Donald Trump is, it should have been easiest for the Huffington Post to do so by juxtaposing his ideas side-by-side in the politics section with those of his supposedly more serious adversaries. The problem with this strategy is that Donald Trump’s denouncement of immigrants as rapists doesn’t seem so crazy when you consider the time Ben Carson (currently second in national polls for the GOP nomination) equated homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia on Fox.
That brings us to the real problem of this election so far: that we seem content to hold Trump as a symbol of what is wrong with the GOP and American politics, but are unwilling to acknowledge the role we have played in the development of a political landscape that prizes such showmanship over ideology and concrete policy proposals. It’s not Trump’s ideas that are the problem, because relative to those of his challengers, his proposals don’t seem all that outrageous. But acknowledging that puts us in the undesirable position of implicating ourselves in his rise, because if it’s not his policies that fascinate us, it’s clear what does – his outlandish behavior.
We’d rather take the easy way out, showering Trump with exactly the kind of free publicity he doesn’t need and cackling at his gaffes. Apathy and sensationalism (an electorate that doesn’t trust its government but hesitates to act on its suspicions, a news media that values attention-grabbing headlines and soundbites over substantive reporting) paved the way for a rich, rash, shameless candidate like him, and now that he’s here, we’d rather halfheartedly vilify him than turn a critical eye to ourselves and take responsibility for creating the political climate that his candidacy has thrived in.