If you tried to follow the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde media circus around Donald Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico this week, followed by his fire-eating immigration speech in Phoenix, you got to hear a lot of slack-jawed journalists saying a lot of strange and funny and sometimes strikingly intelligent things. See, there’s always an upside! Even when you’re talking about the craziest and stupidest event that has ever occurred in the history of the world. Trump did not destroy himself, apparently, with his bizarre 360-degree pivot from hate to love and back to hate again. But he continued his assault on the media and the collective consciousness of humanity and the fabric of reality, and all those things are in grave danger of destruction.
Look, I know you’ve read too many articles about this already and quite likely watched some of it unfold in real time. Still: Jumping Jesus Christmas Christ. That was a combination of brilliant Jedi mind-tricks and total incoherent idiocy that would have seemed impossible before it happened, and largely still does. In mid-afternoon, Trump stood behind an official podium bearing a seal that read “Estados Unidos Mexicanos,” something I thought I would only see in a Black Trump video or a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. (Whatever Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto ate for breakfast on Wednesday, his aides are making damn sure he never eats it again.) The American media’s collective hallucination narrative that Trump looked “presidential” was pretty dumb — all that means is that he didn’t bite anyone or express wonderment that Los Pinos, the Mexican president’s official residence, had indoor plumbing.
But at least Trump briefly impersonated a human being, until he got back to Arizona and bellowed at a crowd of sunburned white people, all heavily dosed with Mountain Dew and credit-card debt and conspiracy theory, for more than an hour. Mexico was still going to pay for building that “intangible, physical, tall, power, beautiful southern border wall.” (I’m serious; that’s from the published transcript.) But the Mexicans just didn’t know it yet; Trump is such a brilliant negotiator he got Peña Nieto to sign a promissory note under hypnosis or perhaps with the aid of “roofies.” Furthermore, Trump told the pickled people of his tribe, illegal immigration was the only major problem facing America and he was going to fix it in two hours. Or perhaps within eight years; certain aspects of the timeframe were not crystal-clear.
Virtually everything Trump said in that so-called policy address was a distortion, an exaggeration or a flat-out lie, including the articles, the prepositions and the declaration that Arizona has “a very, very special place” in his heart. (The place reserved for digesting and dissolving Arizona in Trump’s mechanico-reptilian anatomy is lower down, between his spleen and his liver. “Special,” I suppose, is a term of art.) I’m going to give Trump a pass for the baffling passage where he wandered off script and referred to “this horrible, horrible thought process called Hillary Clinton.” It’s an opinion, first of all, and also an interesting analogy or figure of speech. In what sense is Hillary a thought process? Does he mean she’s a projection of our national trauma and does not really exist? He won back millions of Americans, for a split-second, with that one.
Dan Rather, who learned the hard way how the demands of the campaign news cycle can bite you in the ass, told Chris Hayes of MSNBC that whether or not you take Trump seriously as a presidential candidate, he can manipulate the media like no one else in political history. José Diaz-Balart of Telemundo and NBC News compared the whole spectacle to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s disorienting surrealist masterpiece “Un Chien Andalou,” not a reference you expect to encounter on the network news. (Drawing that analogy in Mexico City, where Buñuel spent the middle portion of his career in artistic and political exile, was oddly appropriate.)
In its relentless quest to find the reasonable middle ground in a world where that no longer exists, The New York Times once again made itself look thick, slow and ridiculous. Hours after Trump vowed to vaporize all undocumented criminals with his Zargon death-ray within minutes of taking office, the Times still had a strained, credulous, this-but-that story atop the front page. Trump’s Mexico junket, we were told, was “an audacious attempt . . . to remake his image,” “a spirited bid” for undecided voters and “a stark turnaround” from his previous tactics and policies. Yes, except no.
Liz Spayd, the Times' public editor (or inside-outside ombudsman), was left to clean up the mess in a postmortem article the next day, noting mildly that numerous other publications — from The Washington Post to Politico to the Arizona Republic — were not caught flat-footed by the possibility that the candidate who has campaigned as a hateful xenophobic creep for 15 months would continue to do so. “Trump acted jarringly differently in Phoenix than he did in Mexico,” political editor Carolyn Ryan told Spayd, without addressing the question of why anyone should be surprised by that and why her paper swallowed the bait so readily.
I’ll tell you why. It was a classic example of Jon Huntsman Disorder, the ailment that causes the Times’ editorial leadership to gather at doleful cocktail parties on the Upper East Side and pine for a so-called moderate and reasonable Republican who will save the benighted American electorate from itself. The fact that the paper’s brain trust spent half a day trying to turn Donald Trump into such a person represents a new low in self-delusion: If this guy repudiates everything he has ever said, he’ll be great. Given the nature of her job, I understand that Ryan can’t say, “Well, the Times got massively punked by Trump, and we fell for it yet again because we have a profound institutional desire to believe that the election will be decided on political and ideological terrain we perceive as normal.” But that’s what happened.
My former Salon colleague Joan Walsh (now a columnist at the Nation) launched an impressive Twitter assault during and after Trump’s Arizona speech on Wednesday night, repeatedly calling out the Times and other mainstream outlets for enabling Trump’s charade. “I hope the journalists who called this Cro-Magnon ‘presidential’ today are resigning their jobs," she wrote. Then, a bit later: “Listen to this hopped up maniac, my fellow journalists. What is wrong with you?” Toward the end of the evening, Walsh wrote that she had “never been so ashamed to be a mainstream American journalist” and began contemplating new lines of work, which I imagine provoked all sorts of suggestions from Trump supporters.
It’s always refreshing to encounter righteous indignation in our overly jaded and modulated profession, and I get where Joan is coming from. There is no question, as I and many others have pointed out, that the media got hooked on Trump’s clownish persona and outrageous antics early in the campaign cycle. As Dan Rather said, either out of animal instinct or calculated strategy, Trump has exploited that magnificently, and the result was a toxic symbiosis that accelerated his momentum. But it’s too simplistic to say that the media created Trump and enabled his rise and that, without that coverage, he wouldn’t have come so alarmingly close to the White House. Nor is it realistic to blame newspaper and TV reporters for treating the actions of the Republican presidential nominee as major news events and for trying to fit them into a conceptual framework those reporters can understand.
Millions of people voted for Trump during the Republican primaries and continued to do so while mainstream media commentators insisted that his campaign was a hilarious anomaly, and that surely Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or John Kasich or, God help us, Lyin’ Ted Cruz would end up as the nominee instead. Trump’s repeated claim that he received more primary votes than any other Republican candidate in history is apparently true — although it’s also true that more Republicans voted against him than for him, meaning that he accumulated both more positive and more negative votes than any previous GOP contender. My point is that Trump is the product of a diseased political cycle and, more than that, a diseased political and cultural ecosystem. To blame this systematic dysfunction on one of its elements, the journalist class, is like saying that if we arrest all the drug dealers we can end addiction. (That was tried; it didn’t work.)
Walsh and other Hillary Clinton boosters were understandably outraged that their candidate gave what was supposed to be a major foreign-policy speech at the American Legion convention in Cincinnati on Wednesday and no one paid the slightest attention. Trump stole Clinton’s lunch money, hijacking all the available media bandwidth and then some, with his unexpected Mexican field trip, followed by his full-throated fallback to fascism in Phoenix. But you know what? I tried to read Clinton’s speech, and then I tried to watch it, and I just couldn’t. It was deadly boring and didn’t say much of anything, and the few snippets of policy or philosophy I could glean from it (e.g., about American exceptionalism) I didn’t care for. She said that this election is “about how to make things better,” and promised to do that. Well, thanks. I can’t blame anyone for finding the Trump saga more compelling.
I have no idea whether Trump helped himself or hurt himself, in normative polling-data terms, with his whiplash whirlwind tour. I'm also not sure it's the right question. At the moment, conventional wisdom holds that Trump has clawed back some of the ground he lost after the Democratic convention and the dozens of offensive things he has said and done over the course of the summer and that we are once again heading for a close election in November. But the fact that Trump is a toxic and charismatic figure with an anaconda-like hold on the news cycle, the fact that mainstream journalists remain enslaved by outmoded narratives of pseudo-impartiality and false equivalence, and the fact that Hillary Clinton’s campaign appears to be drifting along in neutral, hoping that nothing will go wrong, are all related. They are symptoms of a sick democracy, and however this campaign ends the prognosis is not hopeful.