Donald Trump is the ultimate opportunist: Why his racist theatrics—and surging popularity—explain everything about the modern GOP

Media insiders scoff at all the coverage given to the boorish billionaire. Here's what they don't want to admit

By Heather Digby Parton
Published July 9, 2015 5:45PM (EDT)
Donald Trump                                             (Reuters/Dominick Reuter)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Dominick Reuter)

Since first stating last month that undocumented Mexican immigrants are all rapists and drug dealers, Donald Trump has become the focal point of this young GOP primary season. Indeed, press coverage of Trump has reached a deafening crescendo, as yesterday he gave a series of excruciating interviews in which he repeatedly lied to and insulted his interviewers, declared Hillary Clinton the worst secretary of state in the history of the world, and insisted that he had nothing -- nothing! -- to apologize for.

You could (rightfully) argue that Trump's boorish behavior -- not to mention his surging popularity on the right -- is extremely telling for what it reveals about the modern Republican Party. In that context, it makes sense that the businessman has drawn a flood of campaign coverage. However, some members of the press strongly disagree with this development, insisting that Trump is totally unserious and worth ignoring at all costs. They even complained anonymously to Politico's Dylan Byers about it:

“I get it. Trump saying crazy shit is candy, and ‘how do you respond to (fill in the crazy shit Trump said)’ is easy,” one prominent political journalist said. “But let’s be honest about what this is about.”

“Donald Trump is not a serious candidate and the candidates polling near him aren’t being covered the same way,” another prominent political journalist said. “It's one thing to cover it, wholly another to be obsessed by it.”

One wonders why a "prominent journalist" would be afraid to say anything about this on the record -- and why any news organization would grant anonymity for a prominent journalist to say it. But it does tell you basically everything you need to know about the establishment media's attitude, not just about Trump himself, but also about the internal dynamics of the GOP.

The bloviating billionaire has capitalized on the the xenophobia of the Republicans' conservative base, effectively becoming the standard bearer for right-wing nativism in much the same way he was became the standard bearer for birtherism in 2011. By dismissing Trump, and the ignoring the reasons for his popularity, these members of the press have effectively identified those sentiments as irrelevant. But just a quick scan at the right-wing media's reaction to Trump, eagerly validating his racist demagoguery at every turn, shows you just how effectively Trump is leveraged the conservative id to his own advantage, and why that really does matter.

For example, Rush Limbaugh said earlier this week:

Look at what Donald Trump has done. Donald Trump has single-handedly changed the debate in terms of electoral politics now. There is a bunch of us who have been saying similar things, doing similar things. But none of us is running for president and none of us has been covered by the media day in/day out with every syllable that we utter.

Not only is he a leader, he's a martyr for the revolution:

Everybody is now focused on -- when I say everybody, I mean the Drive-By Media, Democrat senators, everybody -- is now focused on the exact complaints Donald Trump has raised about our immigration system. But I want to point something else out. Look at what it has cost Donald Trump. You know, I've been asking in the past couple of days, "Is there a silent majority out there? Why don't they stand up? Where is the outrage?

"Where is the uprising when little bakeries are shut down, when photography shops are shut down? When massive state governments put gag orders on average ordinary citizens, where is the opposition?" I've been asking, "Where is it?" I know it's there. It's afraid to show up. It's afraid to pop up. You know it and I know it. People see what's happening to their neighbors. They don't want to have it happen to them; they shut up. Donald Trump didn't shut up. Look at what this has cost him in just one issue, in just changing the focus.

Limbaugh seems to think Trump might be the one person this "silent majority" of immigrant haters have been waiting for. Ann Coulter agrees:

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Here's Laura Ingraham, making it very clear that the GOP base identifies with Trump (and it's fair to assume it isn't because they're all billionaires):

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And if anyone can lay claim to giving the anti-immigrant zeitgeist its energy, it's Ingraham.

But it's important to remember in all of this that GOP's immigration problem didn't originate with Trump's latest histrionics. Ever the opportunist, Trump has merely latched himself onto a sentiment that has become more and more abundant among the GOP electorate in recent years. One only has to look at the political earthquake that brought down the career of House Majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary election last year. Then as now, the beltway establishment ignored the obvious implications of a development that probably should not have been so shocking. They insisted that Cantor lost due to local concerns, and because the candidate who beat him, David Brat, ran on a libertarian platform they insisted was sweeping the Republican Party. The fact that Ingraham and the right-wing media backed Brat because of his strong anti-immigration message was seen as irrelevant. But it wasn't.

During the border crisis last summer, when child refugees from Central America were converging on the border, Brat told Ingraham:

I think you referred to it in the news, I know Mark Levin did last night, the Washington Times reported 60,000 kids are expected to cross the border at 225.00 a day per child., and big business gets the cheap labor that’s what they want, Eric Cantor’s their guy, but who has to pay the 225.00 a day per kids who are coming over the border in what some are calling a humanitarian crisis because Eric Cantor is sending all the wrong signals? … He wanted to put illegal immigrants into our military, which makes no sense. You’ll have non-citizens in one of the most key positions in our society, serving in the most honored spot.

Despite the beltway's insistence on ignoring the obvious, Brat's upset had a profound effect on politics from the moment he was elected. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

[A] majority of GOP Members wanted an immigration reform to pass as long as they didn't have to vote for it. Before Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss in Virginia last month, the House leadership's private whip count was 144 GOP votes in favor of passing a bill this year. Afterwards it was half that.

The anti-immigrant faction flexed its muscle and scared the Republicans into submission. And here we are today.

All of this is just to point out that Trump's comments aren't unusual in right-wing discourse. The Republican leadership is very worried that their little white slip is showing, and the media is shocked, because once again they don't seem to have been paying attention to what the Republican Party actually says and does. The fact of the matter is that Donald Trump isn't saying anything that you don't hear on talk radio all day every day. Unlike the media, he's just been paying attention.

Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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