Why Does the Press Continue to Get it So Wrong On Donald Trump?

Ed Kilgore covered some of this ground yesterday, but it bears repeating: the majority of pundits continue to woefully misunderstand the Republican base, leading astray most of their predictions and analysis about Republican campaign politics. As Donald Trump continued to rise in the polls, most talking heads dubbed it an evanescent phenomenon, calling it the “Summer of Trump.” When Trump insulted John McCain the entire press establishment assumed he was toast. Instead, he continued to rise. Then after the first GOP debate, most pundits claimed Trump had a horrible debate and would see his numbers subside in favor of Kasich or Rubio. As some of us predicted, they did not subside: instead, the GOP base thought Trump won the first debate.

While some pundits were a bit more guarded this time, the majority of the media establishment felt that Trump was at least neutered in the second debate and would see his numbers fall significantly. Politico started using social media and press interest data to predict that Trump would fall–apparently giving too much credibility to their own power and buying into the notion that Trump’s rise has been entirely media interest driven, rather than a real reflection of the desires of the Republican base.

Predictably again, that was a case of wishful thinking.

The question is: why do pundits continue to get this so wrong? It’s not as if there wasn’t ample evidence after both debates to suggest that actual GOP voters felt that Trump came out stronger than before. Drudge instant polls showed Trump’s appeal, as did any casual perusal of conservative forums like Free Republic.

Conservatives will claim that journalists are liberal and don’t understand Republican politics. Perhaps, but progressives have made equally scathing critiques of the press for years in their underestimation of progressive populist sentiment and elevation of centrist candidates. It’s less that the political press is liberal, and more that it is trapped in a bubble inhabited by the wealthy and powerful. A kind of groupthink develops in that bubble, in which various consultants and political professionals claim to know what the average American is thinking and feeling, but haven’t actually had their ear to the ground knocking on doors and phonebanking to voters in a very long time. They know what wealthy donors and upper-middle class professional and creative class types think, but very little about what the average voter thinks–on the left or the right.

But more importantly, there is a bias in the press toward political neutrality and the perception of balance. After a debate in which Republican candidates peddled an endless string of falsehoods and fantasies, the political press has a crisis on its hands: let it all slide and simply transcribe the lies without challenge, or contribute to a perception of “liberal bias” by actually calling out the falsehoods and holding the candidates accountable?

Trump presents a similar problem. Trump’s extremist positions on immigration and foreign policy, combined with his vulgar, racist and sexist remarks, are so obviously appalling that for him to continuously lead the GOP field not only proves the Mann/Ornstein thesis that the Republican Party has grown uniquely extreme, but also shows that problem extends beyond Republican Party leadership to the actual voters themselves. Even more, the fact that Trump’s apostasy on taxes and healthcare has not significantly damaged him is a demonstration that GOP voters are not actually so committed to the libertarian supply-side economics of the Republican Party as they are to using the power of government to benefit traditionally powerful whites at the expense of women and minorities.

This a problem for the press. As long as Trump leads, it’s impossible to maintain the fiction of equally extreme “both sides do it” partisanship. As long as Trump rules (and, to a lesser extent, that Bernie Sanders continues to rise on the left) It’s also increasingly difficult to pretend that “moderates” in either party are actually the center of public opinion, rather than caterers to a unique brand of corporate-friendly upper-class comfort that labels itself as moderate without holding any legitimate claim to the title.

Acknowledging those realities would force the press to start reporting the fundamentals of American politics as they stand today:

First, that the Republican base wants a rebel leader to take their country back from the inconvenience of being nice to women, gays and minorities;

Second, that the wealthy Republican establishment and its center-right Third Way Democratic counterparts don’t actually have a legitimate base of voters, but rather illegitimate institutional capture of government via legalized bribery; and

Third, that the rest of the country wants liberal public policies that would resemble a Scandinavian government, but most of them are so turned off by the futility of the American political process that not enough of them turn out to vote to make a real difference outside of the bluest states.

Those would be very uncomfortable admissions for the establishment press, so they settle instead for hoping that Donald Trump will go away and lose support organically so things can return to “normal.” That’s not going to happen.