The press wrote this script a very long time ago: Senator Marco Rubio could become the favored establishment candidate in the Republican Party primary as party elites search for answers to the insurgent campaigns of outsiders Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz.
That note has been hit especially hard in the press since the Trump circus arrived on the campaign trail last summer: The GOP is hoping for a tempered, pragmatic savior who can appeal to mainstream voters and help Republicans avoid disaster come November. ("Allowing Trump to have its nomination would saddle Republicans with the worst nominee any party has had in decades," wrote Jonathan Chait at New York.)
Rubio's third-place finish in the Iowa caucus has only cemented that claim, with the press essentially anointing him the Iowa winner. He "may have won the establishment credibility he needs to stay near the top of the Republican presidential race for the long-term," according to CNN. Reuters agreed, crowning "Florida Senator Marco Rubio and the Republican establishment" as one of the big Iowa winners on the GOP side.
But what happens when the facts change but the script does not? What happens when a so-called Establishment candidate like Rubio starts espousing ugly, divisive rhetoric that's synonymous with the darker regions of Fox News and the Republican Party? What happens when he adopts radical policy positions that just years ago would have been seen as borderline even for AM talk radio? (i.e. Outlawing abortions even for victims of rape and incest.)
In other words, what happens when Rubio takes a very hard right turn and obliterates meaningful differences between himself and Trump? Between himself and Cruz? Don't calming, feel-good code words like Establishment then become irrelevant and misleading?
I don't think there's any doubt that, overall, Rubio has benefited from very generous press coverage. Whether it's the sweeping conclusion that he's a "charismatic" communicator, the media happily running with his campaign's spin that it essentially won in Iowa by finishing third, or the press' steadfast refusal to delve deeply into the senator's questionable finances, watching Rubio at the Republican debate last year attack the press as a liberal super PAC for Democrats was amusing. The truth is, pundits seem to revere him.
One way that affection is displayed is to ignore the substance of Rubio's campaign; to whitewash the extremism now at the base of his pitch. To acknowledge that Rubio occupies the far reaches of the political spectrum, and that he's actually sprinted there in recent months, taints the portrait the press likes to paint of him: establishment savior.
To me, establishment sounds like a placeholder for "moderate." And in the case of Rubio, that's a complete myth.
By placing the Florida senator in that wider establishment lane, pundits and reporters seem to suggest that he's somehow part of a pragmatic Republican wing (does that even exist?) that practices common sense conservatism; that he's separate and above those outlier disrupters like Trump and Cruz who embrace more political chaos.
This week, a New York Times dispatch placed Rubio outside of the Republican "hard right" that seems to be flocking to Trump. Reuters explained what distinguished Rubio from the so-called outside, even though Rubio seemed to agree with Trump and Cruz on so many issues, including their disdain for President Obama: "[Rubio] embedded his criticism within a more optimistic, inclusive message."
But just because an extremist coats his divisiveness in "optimistic" language, doesn't mean the campaign press should play along and portray him as something he's clearly not. And yet ...
Forecasting Rubio's White House chances, FiveThirtyEight recently claimed that Democratic strategists are "terrified to face Rubio in the fall." Why? Because of his establishment ability to broaden the GOP's "appeal with moderates, millennials and Latinos."
"Rubio is aiming to be the GOP candidate with the establishment credibility and broad appeal needed to win in a general election, a unifier who can bring together young, moderate voters, along with conservatives and evangelicals," the Christian Science Monitor reported.
A unifier? Rubio walked away from his one stab at establishment legislating with the immigration reform bill that he, as part of the Gang of Eight, helped shepherd through Congress. But quickly finding himself out step with a rabid Republican base that's adopted anti-immigration as its defining litmus test, Rubio sprinted so far to the right on this issue that not only does he oppose his own reform proposal, he's connecting the issue to the rise of ISIS.
No unity there.
As for Rubio's potential appeal to young voters and moderates, a central part of the media's establishment narrative, the senator's increasingly right-wing agenda certainly raises doubts.
Rubio opposes expanding background checks for gun owners, even though 90 percent of Americans support the measure, as do an overwhelming majority of gun owners and even NRA members. He opposes marriage equality and "believes some kinds of businesses, like wedding photography, should be allowed to turn away gay customers." He doesn't want to increase the minimum wage (even though he thinks it's currently too low). He doesn't believe in climate change.
From PolitiFact [emphasis added]:
Rubio will support anti-abortion legislation that includes an exception for rape and incest, but he prefers that the procedure be illegal even in cases of rape and incest.
It's important to note that in terms of the "Establishment" branding, a string of recent Republican Establishment nominees for president, including Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, and George W. Bush, all agreed that allowing abortions to be legal in the case of rape and incest was the best approach. Rubio, though, has broken from that model and staked out a far more radical stance.
And when Trump proposed banning all Muslims from entering America, Rubio seemed to out-flank him in the fevered swamps, at least initially. "It's not about closing down mosques," he soon told Fox News' Megyn Kelly. "It's about closing down anyplace -- whether it's a cafe, a diner, an internet site -- anyplace where radicals are being inspired." (Rubio later said Trump hadn't thought through his Muslim ban.)
Overall? "He's been Trumped," noted Peter Beinart at The Atlantic.
There may still be an establishment candidate lurking in the Republican field who can try to save the party from its own extremism, but based on the media's apparent definition of Establishment, Rubio isn't that person.
A quick recap of the tumultuous, on-again/off-again relationship between Fox News and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump:
Trump has an ally in Fox News.
Trump doesn't like Megyn Kelly.
Trump irons things out with Roger Ailes.
Trump is boycotting Fox News.
Trump is no longer boycotting Fox News.
Trump spends New Year's Eve with Fox News.
Trump might not show up at Fox News' GOP debate.
Trump is kind of a chicken for ducking Fox News' debate.
Trump is "definitely not" going to the debate.
Why can't these two frenemies just get along?
Like the bickering Sam and Diane duo from Cheers sitcom fame, Trump and Fox News obviously belong together (they like all the same things!), but they just can't get past their stubborn differences.
Thursday night's Fox-hosted primary debate on the eve of the Iowa caucus has now been completely overshadowed by the roiling feud between friends/enemies Trump and Fox, as the two institutional bullies lock horns. Is the current impasse a lasting one, or will the harsh words be papered over in the days and weeks to come the way previous Trump vs. Fox skirmishes ended in handshakes and smiles? It's too soon to tell.
What's so strange about the discord is that Trump is practically the living personification of the Fox News id: He's a bigoted nativist who wallows in Islamophobia and thrives on dividing Americans and insulting President Obama as an un-American radical.
After the traditionally nice campaign of Mitt Romney in 2012, you'd think Fox News would be loving the insult-throwing Trump, a candidate who, like so many Fox anchors and hosts, isn't afraid to make stuff up. Trump mirrors the often-tasteless brand of divisive rhetoric that Ailes helped hallmark at Fox.
But the truth is, Trump seems to hold Fox in the same general contempt that he holds the rest of the press. Meaning, from the Trump worldview, Fox doesn't operate on a similar plane as him. Fox is subservient to Trump and -- in his mind -- should be in the business of touting his campaign. If and when it does not, Trump loses his cool because he doesn't like to be second-guessed by "lightweight" journalists.
This represents a whole new world for Fox, which has controlled the conservative debate, and in turn controlled Republican politicians, for more than a decade. Fox sets the parameters. Fox picks the agenda. Fox grooms a handful of Republicans for right-wing media stardom. That's why I can't recall anyone ever picking such a public fight with Fox News from inside the GOP tent the way Trump has. It's simply not done. And Fox's frantic, off-key corporate response to Trump's jabs has confirmed that executives there have very little practice fighting intramural skirmishes.
Forget that Fox cemented Trump's right-wing celebrity status in 2011 when it handed over uninterrupted airtime for him to unfurl his misguided birther campaign against President Obama. Forget that Sean Hannity's basement is probably lined with Trump for President posters.
Without Fox News' exaggerated generosity over the years, and without Fox providing endless free airtime in the form of promotional blitzes to tout Trump as a possible presidential player, it's unlikely Trump today would be perched atop the Republican field.
Trump this week is exercising a power play, pure and simple. (He knows he's the reason Fox likely sold ads for the debate at a sky-high rate.) Bottom line: Roger Ailes is finally facing someone who's willing, and eager, to out-bully him. And do it in public.
Of course what makes all this angry back-and-forth so funny is that one combatant is supposed to be a news organization. News organizations aren't supposed have bizarre, on-going public spats with one party's leading candidate. Anchors on a news channel aren't supposed to plead with candidates to show up at debates. And the head of a news channels doesn't usually try to patch things up by directly phoning powerful politicians. But this is Fox News, so all the normal rules go out the window.
Indeed, the underlying truth here is that if Fox News conducted itself as an ethical news outlet, these kinds of messy spats and hurt feelings wouldn't be an issue. Instead, Fox is often run as a Republican National Committee marketing arm, or a GOP clubhouse, raising expectations from Republicans in terms of how they'll be treated. Trump clearly senses a weakness there and is now trying to exploit it.
In August, I suggested that Fox News, via the unwieldy Trump charade, had "eaten the Republican primary season" and that the "slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans."
Boy, has it. Democrats are likely pointing and laughing this week.
For the record, it wasn't Sarah Palin's rambling endorsement of Donald Trump last week that finally drove editors at National Review to launch the magazine's "Against Trump" push. The conservative media revolt had been in the works weeks prior to Palin's now-classic oratory display.
Still, there was something fitting about the Right Wing Noise Machine's simmering civil war over Trump breaking out into open warfare in the wake of Palin's embarrassing speech; a comeback that had lots of Republican supporters publicly cringing.
What's inescapable about the mounting GOP hand wringing is that Trump is a right-wing media creation. He's flourishing on the fertile playing field of bigotry and resentment that National Review, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a litany of others, have helped seed for many years. There's little doubt that during President Obama's two terms they cultivated an anti-intellectual movement that now appears poised to seize control of the Republican Party.
Today, scores of conservative commentators remain utterly baffled as to what's driving the popularity of the man who, in a matter of weeks, may control the Republican Party nomination. How astonishing is that?
Not only that, but Trump's critics on the right are waging an all-out civil war with his fiercest media defenders, forcing media players to take sides in the slug fest.
For a movement that has often displayed amazing discipline in terms of targeting its cannon fire on Democrats and liberals, the Right Wing Noise Machine now finds itself stuck in circular firing mode.
On one side, Trump's denounced as a "vicious demagogue," a "con man," a "glib egomaniac," and "the very epitome of vulgarity." On the other side, Trump's army has derided National Review as out of touch, and accused the magazine of cozying up to "open border zealots," a cardinal sin on the right.
None of that disguises the fact that Trump is the monster the Noise Machine created by encouraging bigoted and dishonest forces within the conservative movement; by giving credence to the three year Benghazi cover-up charade, the two year IRS witch hunt, by fueling ugly passions about Obama wanting to take away everyone's guns, and by arguing he's uninterested in defending America's national security.
For years, lots of conservative pundits and talkers cashed large, and in some cases very large, paychecks feeding this ugly beast. Now the beast is beyond their control and they're going to whine all the way to New Hampshire?
Call it the perils of Obama Derangement Syndrome.
Conservative John Ziegler saw this media-enable crack-up coming months ago (emphasis in original):
Thanks to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge, Sarah Palin, a website named "Breitbart," and certain elements of Fox News (all of whom have both pushed and ridden the Trump bandwagon for selfish commercial purposes), the conservative base is living under several important delusions which has allowed for "Trumpsanity" to foster and grow.
Fact: The only entity that could likely stop Trump at this point would be a concerted effort by Fox News. But Roger Ailes and company are reportedly struggling with how to handle the Republican frontrunner, and have shown no interest in trying to take him down.
The conservative shock and awe of a possible Trump nomination, and the long-term political implications it could unleash, is now real.
But the revolt likely arrives comically late to the game, since a September or October pushback would've made more sense. Indeed, the magazine is "telling the Republican Party to pull its ripcord long after we've hit the ground," noted GOP consultant Alex Castellanos.
That delay certainly raises questions about the competency behind the "Against Trump" endeavor. Denouncing Trump, National Review editors insist he "is a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones."
But all of those things were telegraphed nearly half-a-year ago when Trump first sprinted to the head of the GOP pack. Why did it take National Review editors and nearly two-dozen writers six months to belatedly acknowledge the obvious and, most importantly, join forces to stop him? (National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote that the project was first launched in late December, but then had to be set aside because of the busy holiday season.)
And who has the conservative nation turned its lonely eyes to in its hour of common sense need? Glenn Beck (Obama's a "racist"), Dana Loesch, Katie Pavlich, Erick Erickson, and Brent Bozell, who once likened Obama to a "skinny, ghetto crackhead."
Talk about a rogues gallery of Obama Derangement Syndrome sufferers who have now banded together to preach political clarity. But when the intellectual cupboard is bare, you make due with what's still left on the shelves and hope the expiration date hasn't already passed.
The Right Wing Noise Machine was revved up to 11 during the Obama years in an effort to destroy his presidency. In the end, the Noise Machine's lasting contribution, in the form of a Trump nominee, may be assuring that Obama hands the White House over to another Democrat.
If that's the case, Hillary Clinton's camp probably thought yesterday was shaping up as an overall positive. In the morning, a new Monmouth/KBUR poll was released showing the former secretary of state with a 9-point lead in the very competitive state of Iowa, which holds its caucus on February 1.
A few hours later, Emerson College released an Iowa poll and it also indicated Clinton enjoyed a 9-point lead. At the time, it meant Clinton had led in eight of the previous ten Iowa polls taken, which translates into positive news coverage, right?
Because around 5 p.m., CNN released its latest Iowa polling results, showing Senator Bernie Sanders with an 8-point advantage. So instead of basking in positive coverage about leading in two of the three latest Iowa polls, Clinton had to settle for "it's a draw" reports regarding Thursday's three Iowa polls, right?
Instead of reporting on the three polls, several major news organizations yesterday ignored the first two polls and only reported on the CNN survey.
At The New York Times, the CNN poll was news: But the KBUR and Emerson polls were not covered.
At Time, the CNN poll was big news. ("Sanders surges.") But the KBUR and Emerson polls were not covered.
At Politico, the CNN poll was big news. But the KBUR and Emerson polls were not covered.
More? According to a TVEyes search, both CBS This Morning and NBC's Today reported on the CNN poll ("a big change") this morning, and ignored the KBUR and Emerson polls.
For lots of news outlets, only the CNN Iowa poll was treated as newsworthy on Thursday. That's remarkable.
I wonder if this is how the newsroom conservations unfolded:
Reporter: Three news Iowa polls!
Editor: Who's winning?
Reporter: Clinton leads in two, Sanders in one.
Editor: Just write up the Sanders poll.
Reporter: And ignore the good-news-for-Clinton polls?
I understand that journalists sometimes like to cherrypick the polling results that cover a span of days or weeks and select the data that fits the tale scribes are trying to tell. It's a dishonest tactic, but a common one inside newsrooms. But this goes so far beyond cherrypicking. This is just flat-out ignoring polling results from two surveys that are published on the same day that journalists swarm around a third poll with different results.
The practice highlights the disturbing trend of campaign reporters and pundits wanting to tell a particular tale and then fitting (jamming?) information into that construct. In the past, the campaign press was generally tasked with reporting and reflecting what was happening on the trail, not with whipping contests into preferred narratives. (FYI, The press has been hyping Clinton's 'doomed' polling numbers for months and months.)
And for months, Hillary Clinton's campaign has watched as very good polling results for her have been lightly brushed off by the press, especially national polls that often showed her with commanding leads in the Democratic primary, as well as her beating possible Republican challengers.
The heavy-handed attempt to mold storylines has led to some baffling journalism. Today, the Post simply announced as fact that Sanders is "leading in polls by single digits in Iowa." While Sanders has had leads in a few polls, Clinton is still up in the state according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.
Earlier this week, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Clinton with a 25-point national lead over Sanders. On television, NBC seemed to signal its own poll didn't matter much. Reporting from South Carolina for the NBC Nightly News on January 18, the day after the poll was released, Andrea Mitchell stressed that even though Clinton was "still far ahead in the national polls," unnamed Democrats "say that if the dominos start falling in the first states the entire shape of this campaign could change very quickly."
Yes, Iowa's close. Is polling for the caucus notoriously unreliable? It can be. So nobody really knows who's going to win. But because some journalists seem to want Clinton to lose because it would make a better story (i.e. her polling's a "nightmare"), that doesn't give then the right to simply ignore polling data that dents their preferred narrative.
"I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly." Trump attorney Michael Cohen threatening a reporter.
It's sad that Donald Trump is normalizing so many unsavory traits with his presidential push this season. He's normalizing bigotry and xenophobia in the campaign arena, for instance. He's also mainstreaming the manhandling of the press.
Just ask Trip Gabriel.
The New York Times reporter was tossed out of a Trump event in Iowa last week. He was thrown out by a Trump staff member and a local police officer who suggested he was following the orders of Trump's Iowa campaign chief. (Days earlier, Grabriel had written a piece that raised questions about Trump's ground game in Iowa.)
On the surface, that's a shocking event: the Republican frontrunner's campaign singling out a Times reporter and having him physically ousted. But since last summer, this type of bullying behavior has become quite common, and the media's response has become nearly mute. Indeed, Gabriel's ejection was noted in the media but didn't seem to set off any loud alarm.
Covering Trump today means being confined to metal barrier press pens at events. It means rarely being allowed to ask the candidate questions and being the target of vicious insults from the candidate and his fans. (One CBS reporter covering a rally was recently asked by a Trump supporter if he was taking pictures on behalf of ISIS.)
Trump and his campaign push the press around at will and they pay no real price. If anything, Trump gets showered with more press attention despite calling out reporters as "scum"; despite denouncing them as liars and cheats at his campaign rallies.
On and on the bullying goes and the pushback remains minimal. This is a profound embarrassment for the national press corps. It's a profound embarrassment for editors and producers in positions of influence who have voluntarily acquiesced their power in order to bow down to Trump and his campaign road show.
The gleeful bullying of the press meshes with the bullying that often goes on at Trump rallies, where violence percolates. Like those thug rallies, we've certainly never seen this kind of behavior from a major party's political frontrunner.
But like the Trump rallies, where's the indignation over the constant press intimidation? Where are the outraged editorials? Where are the endless, handwringing TV panel debates about what Trump's hatred of the press really means; what it tells us about his possible character flaws, and his would-be presidency.
It's possible the press doesn't want to make itself the story, that it wants to maintain its role as observers and not newsmaker and that's why it has refrained from turning Trump's bullying into a big story. That theory takes a hit though when you consider the same press corps has written endlessly about Hillary Clinton's relationship with the press and has stressed over and over what a central role reporters play in her White House push.
It's true that last November, representatives from several news networks banded together and held a call to discuss "how embeds and reporters from outlets are being treated" by the Trump campaign.
But as Huffington Post's Michael Calderone recently reported, the Trump campaign seems uninterested in the press complaints: "In recent weeks, journalists have again been ordered not to leave the press pen by campaign staffers and volunteers and even Secret Service agents, according to reporters who were granted anonymity to speak candidly. Journalists also said they were not allowed to approach the candidate to ask questions after events."
Journalists: We think you're treating us badly.
Trump campaign: We don't care what you think.
*At a recent Trump rally, a Huffington Post reporter noted, "that a Secret Service agent stepped up to help when a Trump campaign staffer tried to interfere with his reporting."
*Asked about allegations from a 1993 book that Trump had sexually assaulted his then-wife Ivana Trump (she later recanted the claim), Donald Trump's attorney threatened a Daily Beast reporter: "So I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?"
*At a South Carolina rally, Trump mocked and mimicked a New York Times reporter who suffers from a chronic condition called arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his arms.
*His campaign barred a BuzzFeed reporter from attending an event in Newton, Iowa, denied Des Moines Register and Huffington Post reporters press credentials to campaign events, and barred reporters from Fusion from covering a Trump event in Doral, Florida.
*Univision anchor Jorge Ramos was physically removed from a Trump press conference.
*A security guard at an Iowa rally threatened to eject any reporter who interviewed Trump supporters: "You talk to people and you leave."
*At a South Carolina event, Trump derided NBC's Katy Tur as "Little Katy, third-rate journalist." Trump fans then rained boos down on Tur, according to the Daily Beast.
One more, from the Washington Post:
After CNN reporter Noah Gray left "the pen" to document a group of protesters who unveiled a sign reading "Migrant lives matter," Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski turned to campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks and said: "Hey: Tell Noah, get back in the pen or he's f***** blacklisted," according to a recording of the incident.
This type of behavior is completely unprecedented. If a leading Democrat were guilty of any of the above transgressions, there would be a roiling Beltway media revolt that would denounce the Democratic campaign continuously. Uninterrupted.
But the Trump campaign has committed all of the above offenses. So why is it mostly crickets from the same press corps?
Donald Trump didn't announce his candidacy until mid-June of last year, but still managed to be covered as the second biggest news story for all of 2015 on the network evening newscasts.
Between ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, Trump's campaign captured 327 minutes of airtime, according to television news analyst Andrew Tyndall (ABC: 121, CBS: 84, NBC: 122 minutes, respectively). That figure doesn't include the network newscasts' coverage of the Republican debates, which garnered an additional 123 minutes of airtime.
Context: ABC's evening news broadcast produced almost as much Trump coverage last year as it did for the Ebola panic in 2014.
How does Trump's 327 minutes compare to other candidates this year and to coverage for previous campaign cycles? Trump's figure is off the charts. Over the last decade, the networks' evening newscasts have never showered a presidential campaign with the kind of attention they gave Trump one year before the White House vote even takes place.
More context: Trump received 327 minutes of evening network airtime one year before the general election campaign. In 2012, during the general election campaign, President Obama's re-election run garnered just 157 minutes of airtime.
Trump has famously had to spend very little money on his campaign to date, in part because of the orgy of free media he receives in the form of news coverage. Media Matters recently calculated that, thanks to over 24 hours of Trump interviews Fox News hosted between May and the end of 2015, the conservative cable channel provided the Republican with nearly $30 million in free media.
Last year, the Republican frontrunner received nearly three times as much coverage as the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton: 327 minutes for Trump, compared to 121 minutes for Clinton (ABC: 35, CBS: 24, NBC: 62.) Note that the controversy over Clinton's personal emails last year received 88 minutes of airtime, while the Republican-fueled Benghazi story grabbed 29 minutes. That means the network newscasts devoted nearly as much time to emails and Benghazi in 2015 as they did to Clinton's entire campaign.
As for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Media Matters previously highlighted that from January through November, ABC World News Tonight dedicated just one minute to the Sanders campaign, an astonishing oversight. For Tyndall's final, year-end tally, ABC bumped that one minute up to four minutes. Sanders received a total of 20 minutes of network newscast coverage in 2015, compared to Trump's 327.
Combined, the Republican field of candidates, and their debates, received 701 minutes of airtime, compared to 248 minutes for Democrats in the field.
But note that a big chunk of that Democratic tally, 73 minutes, was set aside for political speculation surrounding Vice President Joe Biden, who decided not to run. So in terms of Democrats who entered the race and who participated in the debates, the network evening news total for 2015 was 175 minutes, compared to 701 minutes for Republicans, or a 526-minute gap.
With the networks setting aside so much time for Trump, other areas of news were cut back. (i.e. There's a finite number of minutes for each newscast.) According to Tyndall, "Foreign policy received less than half its average annual coverage; domestic policy barely more than half." Specifically, economic news last year received the least amount of coverage in 28 years.
The Beltway media have been crowing a lot about the unfolding "Trump phenomenon." Guess who played a crucial role in creating it?
It didn't take long for conservative commentators to start hurling childish insults at their television sets last night during President Obama's State of the Union address. As he mapped out his vision for America, he was called a "crapweasel president," a "shameless snake" and a "bad man" giving a "stupid shit" speech.
Viewers disagreed, of course, and gave Obama's address sky-high marks last night.
If you follow these regular vile eruptions you can't be surprised. Over the years during Obama's annual, thoughtful national address, his feral critics have excitedly denounced him in real time as an "arrogant," "flippant" "jerk." He was "fake," "thin-skinned," "cocky and snide"; "patronizing," "demagogic," "unpresidential," and really, really "arrogant." And he often gave a "stupid," "Castro-like," "evil speech."
By all indications Obama's final year in office is going to feature a never-ending geyser from the far-right press, where every move and utterance from the president is met with overwrought name-calling and desperate cries of help. His critics have bronzed and memorialized the art of indignation. (And also berated the president's wife, endlessly.)
It must be exhausting.
It's only the second week of January and already, aside from the State of the Union outburst, we witnessed the weird and childish media attacks on the president after he teared up in public while remembering child victims of gun violence. ("Check that podium for like a raw onion ... It's not really believable.")
Just four weeks ago two Fox News talkers were suspended, one for calling the president of the United States a "pussy" on national television, the other for claiming, on the same day, that Obama just didn't "give a shit" about combating terrorism.
It's classic Obama Derangement Syndrome: the inability of adults to rationally deal with the actions of the Democratic president. Remember the collective 2014 meltdown when Obama appeared on comedian Zach Galifianakis' comedy show? (It was "dreadful" and "gross.") When he ordered "spicy mustard" on his hamburger? ("What kind of man orders a cheeseburger without ketchup but Dijon mustard?") Or when feverish critics blamed Obama for golfing when an earthquake hit the East Coast of America?
And note we're not talking about anonymous online commenters, or a group chat of College Republicans. We're talking about people who are supposed to be leading lights within the conservative movement. But it turns out they're immune to intellectual pursuits when it comes to Obama.
The amazing part is very little of this batty behavior seems to disqualify the participants in the eyes of the elite Beltway media. There seems to be few baseless allegations or insults that critics can hurl at Obama (or Hillary Clinton) these days that's deemed out of bounds, which of course only fuels the spoiled-rotten behavior.
So on and on the insults come, under the guise of "debate."
Obama haters are told that not only does he not love America and he tilts toward terrorist sympathies, but the dead-enders' bottom line has always been that Obama's a failure and America has suffered incalculable losses under his leadership.
His fevered critics made that same claim in 2012, only to watch Obama waltz to reelection.
And that's the catch: Virtually every claim they made about Obama turned out to be wrong, whether it was how Obamacare was going to bankrupt the economy (not to mention kill off old people), how he was driving gas prices through the roof, he couldn't create American jobs, he was going to take away your guns, he was letting Iran obtain nuclear weapons and letting Ebola sweep our shores, how he gave the Benghazi stand down order, and unleashed the I.R.S. on his enemies.
Under Obama, the stock market's up more than 9,000 points, the unemployment rate has nearly been cut in half, and USA Today reports that drivers in many states may soon see gas stations advertising $1 per-gallon fill-ups.
So where's the seething anger from?
Is the barely-controllable rage confirmation that the American electorate is changing, and not for the better from the Republican perspective? Is it quiet corroboration that, even according to some Republican operatives, a Donald Trump nomination this year could mean ruin for the GOP come November?
Meanwhile, does Obama's presidency rank among the most successful? I'll leave that debate to the academics. But it's obvious that Obama's successful two-term run has never matched the almost comical portrait painted by his adolescent, name-calling critics. (For context, Obama's current approval rating is not far off from Ronald Reagan's at this same point of his second term, according to Gallup.)
What's amazing to watch is that their parallel-universe view of Obama has only intensified over the years. You'd think the white-hot anger might subside over time, especially when it became clear Obama governed as a traditional, center-left Democrat, not as some sort of Marxist radical.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this week:
The Obama administration has done things people like me strongly disagree with. But America is in better economic shape than any other major nation on earth. Crime is down. Abortion rates are down. Fourteen million new jobs have been created in five years. Obama has championed a liberal agenda, but he hasn't made the country unrecognizable.
But Brooks' (sometimes) pragmatic brand of conservatism is no longer in favor among professionals in the fever swamp where logical observations about Obama (i.e. what's the big deal?) are rarely acknowledged.
Indeed, their unruly rage has only intensified, to the point where it seems like the permanent state of phony outrage is the entire point of the play production.
"Light the motherfucker on fire." Trump supporter yelling at rally protester.
Donald Trump's rallies may have reached a new apex of bigotry and intolerance last week when on two occasions protesters were set upon by agitated Trump supporters. In Lowell, Massachusetts, they tore up a "God Bless President Obama" sign, and then hurled insults at a Muslim woman wearing a "I Come In Peace" t-shirt who was escorted out of a Trump rally in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
According to tweets from inside the South Carolina event, jacked-up Trump supporters were anxious to randomly kick out lots of other people from the rally, even if the targets of their wrath weren't protesting the event.
The two ugly episodes last week join a long list of nasty and shocking physical skirmishes that have come to define Trump's political road show. In fact, here are some of the menacing utterances and taunts that have reportedly been yelled by Trump's supporters at rallies recently: "Go home n****r." "Sieg Heil." "Kick his ass." "Light the motherfucker on fire." "Scum!" And "get him the hell out of here."
Actually that last taunt came directly from Trump, currently the Republican Party's frontrunner.
I'm comfortable in suggesting this kind of habitual ugliness -- it's a Trump feature, not a bug -- is unprecedented in mainstream American politics. The idea that people are regularly being attacked, threatened and accosted at campaign rallies for a major party frontrunner is just off the charts in terms of modern American politics.
Last month, Talking Points Memo published a helpful round-up of the violent outbursts, explicitly noting, "Racist and bigoted language has become commonplace at the rallies, both from Trump supporters and the candidate himself."
Since then, the ugly phenomenon has only escalated, yet the press seems unsure of how to deal with it. Yes, journalists type up the here's-what-happened-dispatches. But where's the outrage? Where are the endless pundit panel discussions about the outrageous behavior Trump is purposefully fermenting? Where are the deep, front-page dives into what the cauldron of Trump campaign violence reveals about his possible presidency?
Note that during an extended interview on Meet The Press on Sunday, Trump wasn't asked about the litany of altercations at his rallies, including two upsetting ones last week. But Trump was asked to discuss allegations about Bill Clinton's sex life from the 1990s.
I can still hear people insisting the story about Trump rally violence is being covered. After all, I just linked to several news accounts that detail the mob rally actions, right? So that proves the press is adequately covering the campaign story, yes?
First of all, too much of the coverage tiptoes around the looming threats of the Trump mobs. Following the incident in Lowell, where two men simply held held up signs that read "America Is Already Great" and "God Bless President Obama," only to have their signs torn up by a mini-mob of Trump supporters before being escorted out by cops -- the Washington Post suggested the incident was just another one of the "colorful ejections" that have come to define Trump rallies. The Post also suggested the sign-holding men had "disrupted the event," not the Trump thugs who turned on them.
Meanwhile, Politico last week cheered the violent Trump events as being "fun."
And as Media Matters noted last month, look at how CBS News reported on a Trump rally beat down:
A "fight" broke out? All available evidence suggests a black protester who interrupted Trump's speech was quickly jumped and then beaten, kicked, and choked by a crowd of white Trump supporters.
Secondly, I'm talking about what's routinely absent from the thuggery coverage; the crime of omission.
For anyone who thinks the coverage has been pitch perfect, just imagine, for instance, if Hillary Clinton supporters were roughing up conservatives at her rallies, punching and choking them. Imagine if Bernie Sanders supporters were kicking and taunting attendees at Sanders rallies who were protesting the Democrat's agenda. Imagine if conservatives quietly protesting Clinton and Sanders were being hauled out of events by cops while mobs of Democrats hurled insults at them.
Cardiac arrest barely begins to describe the type of communal meltdown that would occur within the Beltway press if any of those things had taken place under the auspices of the Democratic Party. Let alone if they took place over and over and over again.
More script flips? What if:
*Clinton or Sanders went on national television after violence at one of their rallies and said "maybe [protesters] should have been roughed up."
*Clinton or Sanders stood at rally podium and called protesters "bloodsuckers."
*Clinton or Sanders supporters were seen on video dragging a protester across the floor by the collar of his shirt.
I'll answer the what-ifs: If any of that hallmark ugliness occurred on the Democratic side (let alone all of it), the Beltway press would essentially demand the offending Democratic candidate drop out of the race because they weren't qualified to be president. Period.
So no, the press has clearly not given the Trump thugs and mobs the proper amount of attention or raised adequate concerns and objections. The press hasn't demanded that the Republican frontrunner fix the problem of hovering political violence that permeates his campaign.
The press seems too nervous to call out the dangerous and disgusting behavior. People who cover politics know that what's unfolding at the Trump rallies is unheard of. They know it's extraordinary. They know it's potentially very dangerous.
Yes, we keep getting updates about who was assaulted at which Trump rally. But there's little connectivity and not enough outrage. Instead, we're told Trump rallies where Democrats get physically assaulted are "fun." (They're not boring like "stodgy" Clinton events, am I right?)
This is bonkers. And it might be the best, most depressing, example yet that too many in the campaign press have walked away from wanting to hold Trump accountable.
After President Obama unveiled new executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence, a constant media theme has been that the proposals are deeply controversial. But are they? Or are media outlets providing a disjointed look by giving a skewed, Republican-friendly take on the issue by stressing conflict where very little exists?
A key component of Obama's initiative is to expand the pool of people who count as gun dealers, which would require more people to be licensed. That would mean more buyers being screened. It's the White House's concerted effort to bypass obstructionist Republicans to close the so-called "gun show loophole."
News coverage has generally been good in terms of clearly detailing the specifics of the proposals. But the coverage falls down when it comes to the politics; when it comes to explaining why Obama has been forced to use his powers as chief executive to address gun violence. (Hint: It's because Republicans have purposefully made Congress dysfunctional.)
Too much of the coverage has also omitted the fact that expanding background checks is wildly popular with everyone, it seems, except Republican members of Congress and the NRA's board of directors.
"Gun owners overwhelmingly support background checks," Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, told the Center for American Progress last year. "And that includes gun owners who are Republicans and gun owners who are NRA members."
By leaving out the context -- by leaving out the fact that 90 percent of Americans support background checks to cover all gun sales -- the press erroneously presents the Obama initiative as deeply controversial and deeply partisan.
But they're not. And it's worth noting that much of the existing polling showing vast support for expanded background checks has focused on the question of whether all gun sales should be subject to a background check, but Obama's proposal doesn't even go that far.
It's actually hard to find another high-profile public policy issue in the U.S. that enjoys as much bipartisan backing. The polling data is rather remarkable:
*90 percent of Americans support criminal background checks for all gun sales.
*83 percent of gun owners nationally support criminal background checks on all sales of firearms.
*72 percent of NRA members back them.
By often ignoring those findings, the press misreads the story.
For instance, Politico reported Obama will have "a tricky task" convincing "gun-owning Americans" to support his background check push. But that doesn't make sense because most gun-owning Americans already support background checks.
And by failing to distinguish the fact that the NRA and GOP politicians categorically object to any Obama attempt to address gun ownership, but most Americans, including most gun owners, do not.
That omission highlights an ongoing newsroom failure when covering the gun debate during the Obama years: whitewashing the GOP's radical obstruction, and especially the nearly unanimous opposition to the White House-backed gun bill in the wake of 2012 Newtown school gun massacre.
Here's how the Washington Post referred to it in a January 4 article [emphasis added]:
His administration failed to persuade lawmakers to approve tighter legislative controls on gun sales in 2013, in the wake of the December 2012 killings of 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Added NPR: "Obama was stymied in his effort to promote gun control legislation three years ago in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre."
That's not quite accurate. What happened in 2013 is Obama persuaded a majority of lawmakers to pass a gun bill, including a handful of Republicans. But a hardcore minority of Republicans in the Senate refused to allow a vote on the issue.
Even though more than 90 percent of Americans supported the bill. Even though more than two dozen people had recently been gunned down in one day at an elementary school. Even though Obama had just become the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to win election and reelection with 51 percent of the vote or more and had made the gun bill a top legislative priority, Republicans still refused to even allow a vote on the background check bill.
Why did Republicans refuse? Because they didn't want to be seen giving the president a victory. That, according to Republican Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, among the few who tried to help the White House fashion together a deal: "There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it."
Ignoring that crucial background information, this week we're told rather vaguely that Congress (not Republicans) "stymied" Obama on guns. The lack of context has produced real oddities.
From the Wall Street Journal:
A National Rifle Association spokeswoman said before the White House's announcement that the president had failed to pass his anti-gun agenda through Congress and now is defying the will of the people by relying on executive action.
Nine out of ten Republican senators in 2013 refused to allow a vote on a gun bill with overwhelming public support, but the NRA claims it's Obama who's "defying the will of the people"?
Some news coverage has gotten it right. For instance, during a CNN report Monday night, an on-screen graphic documented the polling data on the topic:
And a USA Today article on Obama's initiative set aside space to note, "White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pointed to recent polls showing 89% of Americans -- and 84% of gun owners -- support universal background checks."
That's all it takes to provide the proper context. The press should at least do the minimum.
Confirmed: Even after all these years, you don't have to ask the Beltway press corps twice to dwell on Bill Clinton's sex life.
Donald Trump found that out the easy way over the holiday break when he unleashed attacks on Clinton, calling him, among other things, "one of the great abusers of the world." Far-right conservatives have embraced Trump's attack to denounce Clinton as a serial predator on par with accused rapist Bill Cosby.
Trump rang a bell that the press loves to hear rung, and journalists sprang into action. The Sunday shows this week churned with panel discussions about the political significance of Bill Clinton's distant private life. The Washington Post quickly produced a handy, "Guide to the Allegations of Bill Clinton's Womanizing," which included some second-hand allegations from nameless sources about Clinton's private life from three decades ago in Arkansas.
Editors at the Wall Street Journal dialed up the 1990s Wayback Machine and quickly typed up an angry editorial condemning "Bill's runaway libido," while The New York Times' Frank Bruni predicted the "Clintons' marital psychodrama" could emerge as a major political story in 2016.
As I noted two years ago while Sen. Rand Paul amassed glowing Beltway reviews after he called Bill Clinton a "sexual predator" (the move was deemed savvy by D.C. pundits anxious to re-enter the Clinton bedroom), those kinds of attacks are like sending out the Bat-Signal inside the Beltway: It's an electric transmission that the press simply cannot, and will not, ignore.
The bountiful coverage that Trump sparked with a few snide comments about Clinton highlighted the larger press phenomenon that fuels his campaign: Trump's run is essentially being paid for by the Beltway press, which has rewarded him with unprecedented amount of media attention -- free media attention. (Over the weekend, Trump bragged that he'd spent almost no money on his campaign to date.)
Some television pundits over the weekend -- while discussing Trump's attacks on Clinton, of course -- practically admitted that they're helping the Trump campaign get its message out.
"We're going to report on what Donald Trump's line of campaign direction is," said The Hill's A.B. Stoddard on Fox News, basically summarizing the working premise of today's campaign coverage: Trump said X, therefore it's big news.
But why? Why has the campaign press abdicated its reporting responsibilities to Trump tweets and loudmouth comments he makes on cable TV?
The current kefuffle began when Trump made one of his signature sexist gestures by claiming Hillary Clinton got "schlonged" by Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries. When Clinton noted to the Des Moines Register, "It's not the first time he's demonstrated a penchant for sexism," Trump responded by claiming she was a hypocrite for charging sexism because her husband was guilty of "abuse of women," and because Hillary herself also "abused" women involved with her husband. (There's certainly no evidence of that.)
And the press seemed to agree. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus waved off Trump's disgusting "schlonged" attack on Clinton, suggesting the crude assault represented an "awfully mild" form of sexism. (The columnist suggested Clinton faked her anger over the "schlonged" comment.) For Marcus, the far bigger concern today is Bill Clinton's '90's sex life. Marcus is sure it's "far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said." (On Face The Nation, Marcus said it was "smart" of Trump to attack Clinton; to call him "one of the great abusers of the world.")
Keep in mind that over the years Trump has called Rosie O'Donnell "disgusting, I mean, both inside and out. You take a look at her, she's a slob." He tweeted that Arianna Huffington "is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision."
He once claimed, "It doesn't really matter what [the media] write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass." He retweeted a follower who asked, "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?" (Trump later deleted the tweet, claiming it was posted by a campaign staffer.)
And Trump insulted Carly Fiorina by exclaiming, "Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!"
But according to Marcus at the Post, "Bill Clinton's conduct toward women is far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said."
And how many of those ugly examples of Trump sexism were cited in recent coverage of Clinton calling out his sexist behavior? I didn't see many. Meaning, when Clinton denounced Trump's "penchant for sexism," it wasn't really considered news and the press did little to document the Clinton truth. But when Trump responded to Clinton's use of "sexism" (and attacked Bill Clinton's sex life), the press treated that as very big news, and for many days.
As noted, the current media attention is also being driven by far-right Clinton critics trying to portray the former president as an unrepentant predator. "Right-wing journalists and operatives have been laying the groundwork for an attack on Bill Clinton's sexual history for months," wrote Michelle Goldberg at Slate.
Even though many right-wing journalists spent 2015 openly mocking rape accusers in the news, they now insist the unproven allegations by Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey prove Clinton's guilt in the 1970s and 1990s.
Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit, of course, represented a hyper-partisan political orchestration, paid for by deep-pocketed Clinton haters. The case was eventually settled out of court for $850,000, with Clinton making no admission of guilt.
Broaddrick has claimed that 38 years ago Clinton raped her in a hotel room. Rumors of the alleged attack had swirled around Arkansas for years during Clinton's time as governor there and his enemies tried to get Broaddrick to go public, but she refused. In 1998, Broaddrick signed an affidavit in connection to Jones' lawsuit insisting that the long-rumored rape allegation about Clinton was "untrue."
The next year she met with FBI investigators working for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, which spent $40 million breathlessly investigating Clinton's private life. Broaddrick changed her story and said the rape allegation was true. That year, Broaddrick went public with her story in an interview with the anti-Clinton Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Clinton denied the allegation.
In the end, Starr's office found Broaddrick's story inconclusive and referenced her in a footnote in the evidence it sent to Congress for impeachment.
"An allegation like this one served mostly as a reminder of the reason behind statues of limitations," wrote Jeffery Toobin in his 1999 impeachment book, A Vast Conspiracy. "Two decades later, it was simply impossible to determine what, if anything, had occurred between these two people."
Lastly, Willey claimed Clinton groped her in the White House in 1993. Like Broaddrick, Willey cooperated with the independent counsel's Clinton investigation, which was subsequently overseen by Robert Ray. But in the end, Ray gave up on Willey. In his formal report on the Clinton investigations, Ray concluded that Willey had lied to the FBI, therefore she couldn't be used as a witness against Clinton.
But none of that seems to matter much. Trump called Clinton a world-class woman abuser and the press knows the drill, and knows which story it wants to cover.
Wrapping up his round-table discussion on Sunday about Clinton's 1990s sex life, Fox News' Howard Kurtz announced, "It's obviously an amusing topic for the media, at least for now."