As incendiary and dangerous as he is — and he is very dangerous — and as much of a main event as he has been in this election season, Donald Trump is largely a distraction from what really ails our political discourse. Long after he is gone from the scene, the Republican Party that engendered him, facilitated him, and now supports him — despite a severe case of buyer’s remorse — will no doubt still thrive, booting up for a future candidacy of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan. And the media will still act as if Trump were an aberration, a departure from so-called “sensible” conservatism. If so, it will be yet another act of media dereliction.
In fact, worse than dereliction, because the Republican Party, with its history of dog-whistle racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, and gun addiction, salted now by incipient fascism, has been legitimized by the mainstream media for years. One could say that the GOP and MSM have operated in collusion to the great detriment of this country. One could say that and not even be a liberal, just a commonsensical American.
The MSM continue to treat the Republican Party as if it were just another constellation of ideology and policy — another way of governing the country, even though this campaign season, if not the last 30 years, should have disabused journalists of that notion. Today’s GOP is closer to a religious cult than a political institution. It operates on dogma, sees compromise as a moral failing, views enemies as pagans who must be vanquished, and considers every policy skirmish another Götterdämmerung.
That isn’t politics; it’s a modern version of the medieval Crusades, and as the ancient Crusades did to Europe, it has inflicted untold damage on our country. Because it is deep in the bones of the Republicans, it won’t end with Trump, who is a non-believer himself when it comes to conservative orthodoxy. It can only end with the extinction of the party itself as presently constituted — Cruz, Ryan, Rubio, McConnell, et al. — and the rise of a new conservative party, not a cult.
You won’t hear that in the MSM, in large part because, partisan organs like Fox News and MSNBC aside, it tries to maintain that deadly and deadening balance so often discussed and decried by media critics like me. This is a practice that requires a tit for every tat, so that blame can never be leveled against one party unless the media immediately level it against the other as well. Political equipoise, as it were.
Part of this is laziness. Part is fear. The press knows that if it were to come right out and criticize the GOP for its denial of climate change, its campaign to deny the LGBT community its civil rights, its efforts to strip food stamps from children and health insurance from the poor, its systematic attempts to suppress minority voters, its recent howl to protect the Second-Amendment rights of suspected terrorists while at the same time calling for greater surveillance of us all, there would be hell to pay from the right wing, which would invoke the mythical and dreaded “liberal media.” The historian and columnist Eric Alterman calls this “working the refs,” and the MSM fall for it every time.
But there is another reason why the MSM haven’t called out the Republican Party, despite its egregious behavior, and this one is especially relevant in this election: The media simply won’t discuss the Republican Party’s values, as values are the third rail of political journalism. You just don’t talk about values, because when you do so, you can’t fake balance. We all know that there is a big difference between Republicans and Democrats, and it isn’t just a matter of philosophy-cum-policy. It is a matter of what values underlie the parties’ philosophies. And, if I may be blunt, Republican values just aren’t very consistent with what most of us think when we think of good values.
So the GOP’s blatant contradictions, its hate disguised as individual rights and its disdain for the weakest among us, largely go unexamined. Indeed, our media state of affairs is so sad that it largely has fallen to comedians to be our primary truth tellers about what one of our two major parties really stands for — among them, Jon Stewart in his day, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee, whose recent broadcasts on Orlando and guns and on Republican racism have torn the so-called “principled ideological” veil off the GOP and exposed it for what it is: a cult of cranks.
By rousing the hatefulness within the GOP rank and file, Donald Trump has emboldened a few intrepid MSM journalists to rip off the veil, too — even journalists who treat Paul Ryan as if he were a first-rate intellect. Andrew Rosenthal, the departing editorial page editor at The New York Times, wrote a blistering takedown of the GOP’s refusal to denounce Trump, and Times columnist and Iraq War apologist Thomas Friedman, the very definition of a cautious Big-Foot pundit who slavishly creates and follows the conventional wisdom, called for a reconstituted Republican Party on the basis of “moral bankruptcy.” It is a terrific column. Read it.
Of course, two larks don’t an exaltation make, and in any case, both Rosenthal and Friedman are primarily print journalists. Television news still has the longest national reach, and it will never call out the Republican Party no matter what it does, much less examine its values. Instead, we get endless horse-race coverage that turns the election into a long sporting event in which nothing seems to matter except who’s winning. We all know that now, and despite the yowls of protest, we also know that it is not likely to change. Political journalists are like sports writers, tracking a team’s game plans and checking the score — or, as we call it in politics, the polls.
But what we may fail to notice is that, with all its blather about what states are in play or whose field operation is better or which internecine battles presently engage the candidates’ staffs, this kind of coverage is not only a way to juice the political narrative; it’s also a way to avoid touching that third rail. So long as we are talking about strategy or who is winning, we don’t have to talk about policy (borrrrrrrring!!!) or about values.
Avoiding talking about values is one of the reasons we find ourselves in our current political situation. Doing so might have stopped the threat of Donald Trump. Thirty years ago, it might even have stopped the march of the current Republican Party; its values could have been exposed as indefensible, which could have shamed them (and us) into changing. There is a reason the Republicans contrived the slogan “compassionate conservatism.” It was because even they knew their compassion was dubious. It would have been nice to have the MSM examine that, though, of course, it would have required both the courage to buck the right-wing, who would howl, and the seriousness to discuss just how important values are in our politics. In some measure, because we never got that discussion, for three decades the GOP has gotten off scot-free.
Now the MSM routinely rebuke Trump, but that easy critique allows them not to have to rebuke the Republican Party itself, whose values, if not his often-changing policy pronouncements, are virtually identical with Trump’s, minus his oft-changing policy pronouncements. It is the politesse of a Paul Ryan that Trump lacks in expressing his hostility, and it is that politesse that has conned a gullible, frightened media.
When Trump’s candidacy first began taking hold, we were told in the media that Republicans had a Trump problem. As he rose to the top of the GOP presidential heap and rank-and-file Republicans supported him — because of his hateful rhetoric, and not in spite of it — we realized the Republicans had a Republican problem, though, again, the media dare not say it. Now that Trump is the party’s presumptive nominee and Republicans are falling into line just as conservatives did in Germany in 1933, we have come to a much graver realization: America has a Republican problem.
This isn’t about whom we elect as president. It goes much deeper. This is about who we want to be as a people. For three decades, the MSM have been collaborators with the GOP, pretending the cult is a normal party with values just to the right of center. The result is the proto-fascist Donald Trump and an institution that continues to legitimize what is worst in us.