The Mainstream Media’s Self-Inflicted Humiliation: When Did They Become so Pathetically Incapable?Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Politics Features Media
In a triumphalist op-ed written for the triumphant Breitbart, Holland’s Geert Wilder—one of Donald Trump’s several European counterparts who’ve seen their career prospects soar with the sprawling migrant crisis, for which the US can and should be blamed—hailed the Republican nominee’s victory as a crushing defeat for the corporate media.
“It is not just Hillary Clinton who was beaten yesterday; the media and the chattering classes have all been beaten,” writes Wilders. “It is wonderful to see how, in America as well as in Europe, the media pundits and the elites are taken by surprise.”
He makes an undeniable, and I think important, point. Not only has Trump (at least temporarily) put an end to two political dynasties and established an alternative campaign model for billionaires with dreams of world domination (Mark Cuban 2020?), he has also managed to single-handedly humiliate the entire media establishment. Without question, the reason why so many were so shocked by Trump’s victory was because we were told, both implicitly and explicitly, by nearly everyone who is supposed to know, that it couldn’t happen.
Never has a presidential candidate met with such feverish and monolithic resistance from the mass media. Across the spectrum, from the Washington Post to the Weekly Standard, Trump was excoriated on an almost hourly basis. For eighteen months, pundits at the New York Times churned out column after column, week after week, in which Trump and his disciples were put through the wringer. They wrote at length about Trump’s racism and sexism and Islamophobia. His latent fascism. His narcissism. His underhanded dealings as a businessman. The support from David Duke. They compared him to Hitler and Mussolini. They tried linking him to Vladimir Putin. They dug up dirt from twenty-five years ago. They dismissed as categorically wrong the suggestion that Trump’s phenomenal success could be ascribed, even partly, to economic grievances among middle- and working-class voters. It all boiled down to hate.
After a while, it began to feel as though they were clubbing a dead body—which, I suppose, was precisely the point. Trump was being ground to a pulp; they were killing him off, column inch by column inch, and he seemed perfectly willing to dig his own grave. Come September, Hillary would, for all intents and purposes, be debating a corpse.
Of course, the media’s collective repulsion to Trump, and Trumpism, was supposed to shape, and then reflect, popular opinion. I’ll admit, with some shame, that I believed this to be the case. Without even looking at the polls or prognostications—which, lo, proved to be utterly worthless—I concluded a few months ago that Hillary couldn’t lose the election. The basis for this bad assumption was the (seemingly) ubiquitous outrage I observed any time Trump did or said something “offensive.” (I place that word in scare quotes now because, as it turns out, the American electorate wasn’t so offended by Trump’s antics after all.)
Take “Pussygate,” for instance. That was supposed to be the coup de grace for Trump’s already moribund campaign. Every media outlet in the country devoted several days’ worth of coverage to the horrible revelation: the Republican nominee for president has boasted, on at least one occasion, about sexually assaulting women. The outrage, again, seemed ubiquitous. Even crackpot conservatives like Megyn Kelly were speaking out. No self-respecting American woman, it was understood, could possibly cast a vote for Trump now. Especially considering that his opponent stood to become the first-ever female president.
It was the ultimate October surprise. Or so they had me convinced. They also had Trump convinced. He went into the second debate, which came only two days after the Access Hollywood bombshell, a defeated man. Sensing along with everyone else that the jig was up, Trump moped around the stage, bickered with the moderators and promised to throw Hillary in prison once elected (which he could say because he wasn’t going to win). We were watching the miserable last stand of a candidate headed for an electoral thrashing.
Trump and I, and millions of others, were swindled.
Exit polls show that Hillary secured only 54 percent of the female vote; this is hardly the sweeping repudiation of Trump, from women, that we were misled to expect. Moreover, Trump won with white women—by ten points. And the margin was even wider among white women without a college degree, 62 percent of whom voted for Trump, compared to only 34 percent for Hillary.
Regardless of how you interpret those numbers (one writer for Slate chose to characterize Trump’s female voters as masochistic racists who hate themselves), it’s clear that the atmosphere of indignation was to a large extent fabricated. Rendered invisible by the media’s alarmist reaction to “Pussygate” were the millions of women who still intended to vote Trump; their voices were totally excluded from the discourse. On that note, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that some percentage of women were happy to defy a media essentially instructing them—somewhat paternally, and very smugly—how to vote. Pressuring people to conform to your values and opinions often has unintended consequences. Who would have thought?
This sort of boomerang effect is a major phenomenon in our culture right now, and has been for a while. When Hillary used her “basket of deplorables” metaphor to describe Trump’s supporters, they gladly embraced the pejorative label; soon women were spotted wearing t-shirts with “Adorable Deplorable” printed across the front. A similar backlash occurred after Bernie Sanders accused Planned Parenthood of being part of the dreaded establishment. Ditto when Trump called Hillary a “nasty woman” during the last debate (some women reportedly tattooed the epithet onto their bodies). Another example, relevant in this context, is the word “bitch.” Women coopted that term of abuse years ago (think Bitch Magazine), stripping it of whatever power it once had. It’s a demonstrably effectual tactic.
No doubt, then, there’s a faction of female Trump voters who welcome the sort of invective now being hurled at them. Whether they’re deserving of such invective is irrelevant; the point is that it serves no purpose beyond further alienating a disaffected, and politically energized, sector of society.
Latinos were another demographic the media did their utmost to mobilize against Trump. Conventional wisdom held that, like women, no self-respecting Latino would vote Republican this time around. After all, Trump insulted them repeatedly with his nativist rhetoric and his wall idea. This point was reinforced ad nauseam in the media. Going back to the exit polls, 65 percent of Latinos voted for Hillary, compared to 29 percent for Trump. That’s a significant gap, but less significant than the one from four years ago, when Obama received 71 percent of the Latino vote to Romney’s 27 percent. McCain fared negligibly better in 2008 with 31 percent. Conclusion: Latinos were no more averse to Trump than they were to previous Republican candidates, meaning the media’s narrative was once again discrete from reality.
When did the corporate media become so pathetically incapable? Think about it: they pulled out all the stops this time; they used all the means and energy at their disposal to shore up Hillary’s campaign and sabotage Trump’s. It was a downstream battle, and still they lost. The debate over why and how they lost is unfolding as I write, and will no doubt continue into the coming weeks and months. The most popular explanation, at this point, appears to be that the racism and misogyny (a lot of that being female) of white America was simply too robust a force to overcome. While I’m not ruling this out, I’m also not convinced, and it’s a reductive argument in any case. Certainly a good number of Trump’s supporters are motivated by bigotry, but then so were a good number of Romney’s supporters, and Bush’s and McCain’s too. That’s nothing new. And even if Trump does in fact have more bigots filling out his base, that’s not the end of the conversation.
It would be a critical mistake, I think, to continue to ignore the factors underlying said bigotry, which are really quite obvious. Bernie Sanders—remember him?—spoke about them at length: class warfare, stagnating wages, job loss, lack of upward mobility, corporate hegemony, capitalist depredation, political corruption, etc. Under a system like this, the ruling class can only keep their subjects at bay for so long; if it keeps on raining, as Robert Plant said, the levee’s going to break. When it does, shit hits the fan, and whole classes of people become vulnerable to demagogues who tap into legitimate grievances but do so by scapegoating minorities. Enter Trump: a garish celebrity with heaps of money (heaven knows we worship celebrity and money in this culture) who struck a convincing populist pose and addressed, however insincerely, the valid concerns of ordinary working people, all while sticking it to the political establishment that everyone so despises. It was a perfect storm, and there’s no other way to understand Trump’s success in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which won him the election.
The corporate media, being corporate, have been ramming their chosen politicians down our throats for many a decade. We’ve never really had any say in the matter. Oh sure, every four years we have the illusion of choice: between a candidate who wants to increase the military budget by $10 billion and another who wants to increase it by $15 billion—that money being cut from less important programs, like education and healthcare. It goes without saying that what Geert Wilders calls the “chattering classes” have never had our best interests at heart; that’s putting it charitably. With this in mind, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise—and it doesn’t to me, in hindsight—that so many voters were suspicious of the media’s frenzied opposition to a candidate who portended real change. As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.