The media’s mea culpa season is in full bloom this spring as analysts and commentators step forward to concede that with Donald Trump effectively seizing the Republican nomination, they were often very wrong in predicting his political demise.
Convinced that he was an outlier fluke who couldn’t sustain his popularity -- let alone nail down a major party nomination -- the Beltway media consistently missed the Trump surge for months, and often did so in bold fashion:
*“Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously” (Washington Post)
*“Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.” (New York Times)
*“No, he won't win the Republican nomination for president.” (ABC News)
Credit now goes to journalists who have stepped forward to admit their mistakes and offer news consumers some guidance as to why commentators likely misread the Trump campaign.
Some reasons offered up include, Republican elites failed to effectively coalesce around an anti-Trump candidate. The news media essentially sponsored Trump’s campaign with an unprecedented amount of free exposure. And Republican voters didn’t penalize Trump for his obvious policy flip-flops.
Note that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being incorrect about campaigns, assuming predictions are made in good faith. And this Trump misfire isn’t going to, nor should it, stop pundits and prognosticators from trying to peer into the future.
But there is a problem if the media’s elite class doesn’t understand how one of America’s two major parties functions today. It’s problematic if the GOP’s gone through an ugly transformation, which produces a Trump nominee, and the political press is too timid or too detached to accurately document that radical makeover.
And in the case of Trump that denial seems to have been widespread. For instance, much of the data pointed to a Trump win for a very long time. “Trump was a stronger candidate than anyone wanted to admit,” the Huffington Post recently noted. “He skyrocketed to the top of an incredibly crowded pack soon after announcing he was running.”
Resisting those hard facts, many journalists clung to the idea that Trump was simply too out-there to become the nominee; too extreme, reckless, and garish for a major party nominee.
And that’s still the problem today. Lots of media analysts continue to ignore a central reason for why they missed the Trump surge, and they’re still not acknowledging what’s driving his success: The truly radical nature of today’s Republican Party and its right-wing voter base.
Y’know, the conservative movement that cheered Glenn Beck when he called the president of the United States a "racist"; that supported right-wing claims that president Obama was a tyrant who needs to be impeached. (And that he was foreign-born.) The movement that revolves around Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that if Obama weren't black he'd be working as a tour guide in Hawaii, not sitting in the Oval Office, and who insisted Obama ran for office because he resents white America and wants to score some payback.
And it’s a Republican Party that has essentially shut down the U.S. Congress, rather than legislate with Obama. It’s a party today that refuses to hold hearings for the president’s highly qualified Supreme Court nominee.
That’s what the Republican Party has become in recent years, but the press has mostly held its tongue about the nasty makeover. And in the process, the press missed the Trump surge, which rode that radical GOP wave.
The collective, years-long turning of a blind eye indicates to me just how important it is for the Beltway press to maintain a symmetrical balance between Democrats and Republicans. It shows how the press remains married to the idea that the two parties are simply mirror images of each other, occupying different ends of the political spectrum. That for however far to the edge Republicans move, Democrats are sure to reciprocate. It’s the Both Sides Are To Blame syndrome, basically.
And there’s great comfort in that for the press. Because if you call out Republicans as radical, or note that the ugly nature at the base of the GOP could easily propel Trump to a nomination victory, that means the press has to break from the safety of the Both Sides narrative. That then opens the press up to “liberal media bias” denunciations from the right.
So which is worse, being taunted with claims of liberal bias, or misreading a presidential campaign season for ten months?