There is little question that Donald Trump has been a fascinating political phenomenon, but most fascinating to me is how useful his candidacy may be for understanding the rapidly changing environment and terrain of American politics, particularly the present functions of political parties and the news media in American politics. For political scientists trying to understand how changing demographics and increasing secularization are impacting the Republican Party’s electoral strength nationally as well as the rapidly changing role of the media in American politics Trump’s candidacy has clearly been a wonderful gift. Trump’s candidacy has also been quite useful for psychologists who study narcissistic personality disorders.
We have seen religious candidates like Ben Carson before, as well as demagogues like Ted Cruz, but Trump is doing something that has never been done so explicitly before. His undisguised effort to exploit racism, sexism, and xenophobia has effectively outed elements of the GOP base Republicans have worked very hard for many decades to keep closeted. They’ve always been an important constituency, but one that was summoned with “dog whistles.” Trump is either very bad at using dog whistles, or he’s dumb enough to believe that there is a silent majority of Americans so upset by liberal political correctness that he can ride a wave of liberated knuckle-draggers into the White House. Most analysts assume he knows he can’t win and harbors some self-aggrandizing goal short of victory. If so, he’s fooling me.
No other candidate has done more than Trump to bring the present conflict of interest of commercial news media outlets into stark relief. As I discussed in last week’s post, media market imperatives have all but destroyed the capacity of commercial media outlets to provide accurate information and objective analysis that would assist average voters in making rational decisions at the polls. The fact that Trump is dominating both the polls and the media coverage of the GOP race, even though every rational analyst understands Trump can’t actually win, vividly illustrates the inability of the hyper-competitive 24/7/365 news media industry to serve as an effective intermediary between citizens and political leaders. Trump looks like confirmation that the commercial media has completed its devolution from educating and informing to info-taining to simply entertaining.
Unmediated politics are particularly dangerous in a democracy. Robert Kuttner’s recent description of “demagogues and mass alienation” that characterize the ongoing GOP nomination contest is actually a description of what happens in a democracy when trustworthy mediating institutions decay. What better evidence could we have that political parties and the news media have lost credibility as political intermediaries than the seeming imperviousness of Donald Trump’s supporters to facts, evidence, logic, and amazingly even to common decency? Trump’s candidacy has (with good reason) been likened to all manner of catastrophe. I’m increasingly compelled to see his doomed candidacy as a sort of “canary in the mine” signaling the poisoning of our political environment by forces that have been gaining strength for some time now.