By now you’ve probably seen the footage of a dour Marco Rubio presser in Florida, where he seems downtrodden and frustrated in the wake of the weekend’s violent protests in Chicago and the failure of his own campaign to launch.
“I mean, if you think about Donald Trump says these outrageous and offensive things, his speeches get covered live by cable networks, wall to wall,” Rubio said. “I mean, and I know it’s good for ratings to have him on people’s show, I know he’s good for ratings to cover these speeches because of what he might say, but I think the media’s responsible for some of this.”
As I’ve argued since last August, the real causes for Donald Trump’s rise are much larger than politics – namely the social trend toward atomization and the economic trend toward globalization which have made white identity politics an appeal with enough juice to elevate a candidate. You can see that in this report from Ohio – a populace that feels like it has played by the rules only to find that the rules have changed.
“What I guess most frustrates me about politicians is that they don’t understand that, for me and most people that I know, work is part of our culture. When they continue to make it harder for us to find ways to work, we eventually hit a boiling point,” Biddlestone said, trying to explain Donald Trump’s appeal with regular voters. “We don’t fit in with Washington. We have done absolutely everything that we were supposed to do all of our lives and our values are looked at as backwards. Our homes are worth less than we paid for them and there is no great replacement for the jobs we are skilled to perform.”
But that’s the big picture, not specific to Trump himself. A more granular analysis breaking down the causes for his rise would probably be a pie chart with one quarter the sycophantic media, one quarter President Obama’s authoritarianism and disdain for working class priorities, one quarter right-wing fomenting on immigration, and one quarter Republican inadequacies and failure of elected officials to live up to their promises. Give or take a percentage here or there.
As for Rubio, it’s easy to understand why his frustrations would be mostly focused on the media quarter of that pie – it is the personal frustration at being a telegenic candidate who thought he’d be getting all that adoration for months instead of Trump. The end of this piece by McKay Coppins on how Rubio’s made-for-TV campaign fell flat is kind of a summation of his campaign:
On the eve of Thursday’s debate, Rubio held a sunset rally in Hialeah, a heavily Cuban Miami-Dade city lined with brightly colored casitas, concrete driveways, and small businesses with bilingual signs in the windows. ‘We have to win here in Florida,’ Rubio told the crowd of hometown supporters. ‘I’m asking you to come out and vote in massive numbers.’ He repeated the message in Spanish as well, and urged attendees to take advantage of the early voting location ‘just a block away,’ adding that the campaign had selected an earlier-than-usual 5 p.m. start time for the event so that everyone would have time to vote afterward.
Then, after finishing his speech, Rubio welcomed Megyn Kelly onto the stage, informed the crowd that he would be taping an interview with Fox News, and invited them all to stay. A few people peeled off from the audience, but most dutifully stuck around. They listened to instructions from a Fox News producer (‘Obviously cheer at some points that the senator makes that you like’) and provided a boisterous backdrop for their candidate’s entire interview. By the time it was over, the nearby polling location had closed for the night.
Trump’s access to free earned media due to his connections, his threats, and his willingness to say things that offend the sensibilities of polite elites has been a great benefit to him because it is a core part of his brand and appeal. The medium is the message. The message is not the message. The constant TV time is the message. When he’s on “wall-to-wall” TV as Rubio says, it’s not in the interview context – it’s his rallies and his meandering speeches. If the media puts Trump on live TV ninety minutes at a time while he’s telling jokes the whole time, that’s not at all the same thing as the way they normally cover politicians.
And when they do interview him, most anchors aren’t grilling him and demanding answers – instead, they allow him to give answers with virtually no follow-up, and often stay away from awkward topics or holding him to the same standards as other politicians. Yesterday Trump did four Sunday shows without a single question about the Michelle Fields incident – if another candidate had their campaign manager accused in a police report of a violent act, one would think someone would bring it up. It’s as if political reporters became entertainment reporters and he’s on the red carpet at a movie premiere – “Do you think it’s going to be a good movie?” “Yes I do, Bill, it’s going to be great, people tell me.” The fawning from most is amazing: they’re TMZ, and he’s Kim Kardashian’s Instagram.
The media at large needs to be held accountable for its contribution to the devolution of public standards of decorum. The era of sensationalism and reality TV (lowest common denominator programming for profit) has coarsened our culture. That’s not really the fault of the news industry, but something broader – the entire television industry even more than movies. Thanks to his performance within the reality TV genre, Donald Trump has lived in our homes nonstop for years – now, he’s just taking the same act on the road, and it’s honestly surprising how little the political media has compelled him to change it. The rare moments that they really do treat him like a politician instead of a celebrity are the points where Trump starts whining, and we know how that ends: “I do whine because I want to win and I’m not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win.”
It’s easy for conservatives to ascribe intent to this approach to coverage, especially when news officials are saying things like this. Whatever degree of coordination or forethought are given to this, if after the convention the media suddenly starts cooling off soft coverage of Trump and instead spends time digging into Trump’s multitude of victims and spends all its energy humanizing his awfulness, it will be a good argument in favor of the biased nature of the prior coverage. But can you really blame a news media that has become all about entertainment for their Trump sycophancy, considering that in the end, it’s just good TV?