The final outcome of the 2016 election might well depend on whether the charter members of our media elite are willing to trust their lying eyes and call ‘em like they see ‘em.
It’s no secret that the so-called “mainstream media” views itself as the impartial arbiter between two equally-responsible political parties who advance familiar agendas and vie for power at regular two-year intervals. The media are content in this role because it means equal access to the corridors of power as incumbents and challengers alike court the press for favorable coverage.
And so long ago, before even the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency was unthinkable, I wrote that it was wrong to talk about the "liberal bias" of the media because America's media establishment was conservative in the same way all establishments are conservative -- defending a status quo that's worked out pretty well for them.
Flash forward five years and the people who will be telling the story of the 2016 election are those who have risen to the top of their professions - to positions of power, prestige and profit - because they have mastered the rituals and assumptions of a two-party political "system" in which functioning and legitimate Democratic and Republican parties are the central "givens" that support all of the other familiar routines our elites think they know so well.
There is therefore powerful inertia and self-interest driving our political class to protect those "givens" from scrutiny or criticism, even when one of our major parties jumps the rails and nominates as its standard-bearer someone as utterly unfit as Donald Trump.
David Roberts, writing in Vox, is right when he says the window may be closing on that “brief period of clarity” when a bi-partisan consensus exists (outside of Trump’s most rabid supporters) that Trump is not fit to be president.
It’s not just Democrats who think so. As Roberts points out, Republicans and conservatives are leading the way in the race to invent the most imaginative invectives with which to hurl against this self-proclaimed tribune of the people.
Marco Rubio called Trump a “con man.” Mitt Romney called him “a phony, a fraud.” Ted Cruz called him an “amoral pathological liar” who could plunge the county into an “abyss." Lindsey Graham said Trump would lead to “another 9/11.” David Brooks called him “epically unprepared to be president.”
George Will said that Trump’s running mate will, by accepting Trump’s offer, automatically identify himself or herself as being unqualified for high office. The National Review devoted an entire issue to condemning Trump in “florid terms.” A Super PAC was created just to stop him.
My personal favorite was New York Times conservative Ross Douthat who was so incensed by the thought this madman may be one step from the White House he used “grotesque” as a noun when he fumed that Trump was a “proto-fascist grotesque with zero political experience and poor impulse control.”
The issue is not really ideological, says Roberts. The attacks against Trump are not about taxes, or regulation or whether the Mexican government will build us a wall at its own expense to keep its citizens from visiting America. It’s about basic fitness and competence, says Roberts, and the genuine fear that “a man with Trump's temperament and habits could do real, lasting, no-joke damage as the leader of the free world.”
Say what you want about Hillary Clinton, says Roberts, but for all her flaws she is at least a serious person who understands how policy and government work and is manifestly more prepared to run the federal government than Donald Trump. She just is.
Yet, as Roberts laments, the number of people who recognize this “elemental fact has probably already reached and passed its peak.” It is all downhill from here.
Just watch. Today’s “moment of clarity” will quickly fade as established players try to “normalize” Trump and his vulgarian behavior for the simple reason the American political system is an “ecosystem” in which media, consultants, power brokers, think tanks, foundations, officeholders – “the whole thick network of institutions and individuals involved in national politics” -- cannot deal with a presidential election in which one candidate is so obviously inferior to the other.
One side is offering “a flawed centrist.” The other is offering up “a vulgar xenophobic demagogue” – a liar and a racist and an egomaniac. But these realities run counter to the interests of “entire classes of professionals whose jobs are premised on the model of two roughly equal sides, clashing endlessly,” says Roberts.
Yet, says Roberts, “the machine is simply not built to handle a race that's over before it's begun.”
The blunt criticism of Trump we are now hearing from the media will likely change once Trump formally becomes the Republican nominee, says Roberts, as the entire GOP apparatus falls into line behind him as Republicans accuse journalists of “bias” whenever they write critical stories about him, however accurate they might be.
As we enter a new phase in the campaign now that Republican and Democratic standard-bearers are pretty much known, let’s see if the media reverts to form and turns a blind eye to the radical changes that have transformed the GOP as well as the ugly base that supports its presumptive nominee.