Monday night, Arianna Huffington caved and wrote an open letter, explaining that The Huffington Post would stop covering the Donald Trump campaign in the entertainment section, moving coverage to where it belongs: the politics section.
The move was long overdue. Putting Trump in the entertainment section may have been a funny stunt, but it had some rather disturbing implications about the role of journalism in the political process. It's one thing for journalistic enterprises to share opinion and data that helps voters make better informed choices, but it's another thing entirely for journalists to appoint themselves gatekeepers. It's not just undemocratic, but, as the Trump campaign shows, it doesn't work.
That's because The Huffington Post, and many other journalistic outlets, continue to make a category error when it comes to Trump, assuming that the main reason all this is happening is Trump himself. The assumption is that he's somehow an idiot savant of American politics, the man who cracked the code, broke all the rules and is rallying voters around his cult of personality. That Trump is a fascist pied piper, playing a beguiling racist song on his flute and leading huge numbers of Americans over the cliff.
But the Trump phenomenon isn't really about him, as fascinating (and orange) of a character as he is. Trump is better understood not as the creator of a movement, but the expression of a popular will, a cipher through which huge numbers of Americans communicate what looks an awful lot like fascist sympathies. He is a symptom of a larger problem, not the cause of it.
When you're working under the assumption that Trump is the creator of his own movement, it seems not unreasonable to believe that choking him off from media attention is the key to fixing this problem. While the ignore-him-and-he'll-go-away arguments have lost some of their salience in recent months, this belief, that journalists have a certain amount of power to destroy him that they are neglecting to use, continues to have a hold in some circles.
After Trump on Monday called for banning Muslims from entering the U.S., there was a rush of journalists pointing out that he timed his announcement perfectly to drown out reports that that Ted Cruz was beating him in the polls in Iowa. Andrew Prokop of Vox took it a step further, arguing that the round of bipartisan condemnations "is exactly what Trump wanted" and trotting out polling evidence that shows that Trump benefits from controversy.
It's true that Trump benefits from controversy — I pointed that out myself right before the San Bernardino shooting happened —but it doesn't necessarily follow that he is playing us all for fools when the media covers his ugly statements and politicians and pundits condemn them. Another, more likely explanation is that Trump tends to crest when proto-fascist sentiment rises up in the public. He may not be leading followers so much as he is riding a wave.
The events after the Paris attacks suggest the wave theory over the pied piper theory. Trump spiked in the polls after that event, but the polls were all taken in the days before he rolled out his Muslim database idea and before he claimed to see Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks in New Jersey.
All of which suggests that it's less what Trump does that matters to his supporters than what he represents. If you're feeling in a racist, hysterical mood, then you know Trump has got your back before he even opens his mouth.
Trump's much-ballyhooed showmanship is just more evidence that, far from leading the troops, he's just doing their bidding. As an entertainer, he knows the secret to playing to a crowd is finding out what they want and giving it to them. One of the things that sets him apart from the other candidates is his accessibility. Most candidates have a layer of people between themselves and the public so communicating with the candidate requires setting up carefully prearranged meetings. Trump, on the other hand, is a Twitter obsessive who sits there, no doubt personally much of the time, retweeting stuff directly from his followers. He always reading his audience and tweaking his act to meet their standards.
No doubt Trump released his Muslim travel ban plans in order to derail Ted Cruz's big moment. That doesn't make him some criminal mastermind, though. Timing newsworthy campaign announcements to undermine your opponent is a standard move, something nearly all politicians try to do and any campaign adviser worth his salt will tell you to do. (Remember how John McCain timed the announcement of Sarah Palin as his running mate the day after Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, a move clearly designed to knock Obama's triumphant speech out of the headlines?) The timing aspect is only interesting because the campaign announcement itself is obnoxious and bigoted and is guaranteed to cause another round of wondering if Trump is officially a fascist yet.
Trump did what candidates do: Feeling the race tightening up, he increased his outreach to voters by dangling a policy idea in front of them that he thinks they will like. The fact that he thinks this gambit will work is where the story is.
This isn't a media story. It's a voter story. If the only thing Trump needs to rise in the polls is media attention, he could tap dance or honk someone's boob or get plastic surgery or something. He went this direction because he thinks, almost certainly for a good reason, that the voters who have been playing footsie with Cruz will be excited by this proposal and will go back to supporting Trump. In that sense, he's like every other politician out there, going where the votes are.
Trump is a big, orangey object that's fun to look at, but the real story is why there is an actual proto-fascist movement forming in this country. Trump isn't the beginning of anything. He's the end result of years of conservatives growing angrier and angrier — and taking pre-Trump steps like forming the Tea Party and pushing ever more radical Republicans into Congress — about the diversification of America. And if he went away tomorrow, that anger would still be there and someone, likely Cruz, would be the next guy in line to start trying to channel it into political victory.