Liberalism is a culture infected with a deep worrywart impulse, a tendency to mistake cautious optimism for complacency. Little wonder then that this week, when the final obstacles between Donald Trump and the Republican nomination fell away, has caused a bout of panic that our once-great nation will be facing the specter of a President Trump. And so, even though the polling data shows nearly insurmountable odds for Trump, we are nonetheless being subjected to a series of hand-wringing articles about how he's going to somehow pull this off.
Clearly, we all need to worry really hard in the direction of this slim possibility. That will make all the difference.
Of all the "everyone panic!" articles I've read, the only one that gave me pause was a Vox piece by David Roberts titled, "Why the media will lift Trump up and tear Clinton down". In it, Roberts argues that the systems of political coverage are built around a presumption that it's a contest between equally matched opponents, and so there's an incentive to pretend that is true even when it's not.
No institution needs a competitive election more than the media, especially what remains of the "objective" campaign media. Imagine writing this headline:
Trump, bad candidate, likely to lose
Now imagine writing it again and again for six months — and watching your web traffic dwindle into nothing. Sad!
And so, he argues, while it probably won't be enough to push Trump over the top, 6 months of stories minimizing Trump's flaws and exaggerating Clinton's flaw will do real damage to the current margins she enjoys.
It's a scary argument for a couple of reasons. One, we've seen exactly what he's talking about happen before, in the year 2000. Al Gore was leagues above George W. Bush as a candidate: Smarter, more in tune with the public will, more competent, not corrupt, and more experienced by a long shot. But the media covered it as if it was an even match, accepting Bush's claim that he was a "compassionate conservative" with no skepticism, while wildly distorting every little thing Gore said or did.
(You may not know this, but despite widespread media coverage to the contrary, Gore never said he invented the internet.)
However, there is reason to be optimistic. Yes, Trump clearly plans to pivot to the general. He's said as much, that he's going to act more presidential and try to hoodwink voters into thinking he's not as bad as he is. And yes, the media will probably be eager to run nonsense stories to make this a real race and not a blowout.
But there's a major obstacle in the way, a man who will destroy efforts to turn the Trump clown show into a legitimate campaign. That man's name is Donald Trump.
Look, Trump is a clown. He can't help it. There were various points during the Republican primary where he was clearly trying to make an effort to act more professional, and it inevitably turned sideways as his overwhelming desire, nay need, to push people's buttons and express his deepest self (who is an asshole) came roaring out. This will continue to happen, I am sure of it. Doubly so because his opponent is a woman, and he won't be able to resist the urge to try to put her in her place, which will invariably backfire.
And the media will cover it, every time. Because while Roberts is right and stories pretending the candidates are evenly matched get a lot of clicks, the one thing that gets more clicks is today's WTF story about Trump. Every time he gives into the urge to make a sexist crack about Clinton, that's click bait. Every time he makes a boneheaded racist remark, click bait. Every time he suggests he wants to have sex with his daughter, click bait. He claims he wants to cut that stuff out, but he won't. That's just who he is and he's shown no evidence that he can tamp down the most odious parts of his personality for long.
Trump's habit of trolling the media helped him win the Republican primary because the vast majority of Republican voters hate what they believe is a "liberal media" and got a cheap thrill out of aggravating liberals.
But that habit also makes everyone else hate Trump. His one tool for getting coverage — being the worst — is what will bring him down.
Look, for instance, at Trump's first big attempt to pivot to the general and to appeal to the minority voters he's just spent the better part of a year making racist cracks about:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2016
True story: This tweet caused a debate between myself and a friend over whether or not Trump was trying to annoy Hispanic voters. I felt, looking at this, that this is a bit of racist trolling, more of a sneer aimed at anyone who thinks the Hispanic vote is worth asking for than a genuine attempt at outreach. He felt this was a sincere, though utterly wrongheaded, attempt to reach out.
Who is right and who is wrong here hardly matters. The fact that the image is so offensive that the only thing left is to argue over whether the offense was intended is the issue here. And the media can't help but cover bonkers stories like this. This image has been viewed around the country, and the only people who don't find it wildly offensive are white people who back Trump because he hates Mexican immigrants.
I expect the next 6 months to be a series of events like this. Whether Trump is trying to be good or giving into his urge to be a jerk, he will come across as a provocative jerk. Because being-a-jerk is great click bait, the media will breathlessly cover ever dumb or offensive thing he does. By November, the only votes he gets are the diehards. It's hard to imagine this playing out any other way.