Donald Trump isn't running anything remotely like a normal presidential campaign. He's not appealing to a wide swath of the electorate. He's not trying to win over the middle. He's not even trying to expand his base. He's just further instigating his core supporters with racist appeals, conspiracy theories, scare stories and culture-war rhetoric. He's narrowcasting to bubbles of ignorance and grievance and authoritarian submissiveness.
He doesn't really have much choice. Any informed, non-blindered analysis of his leadership during the pandemic leads inescapably to the conclusion that he is dangerously incompetent. His fury over the surging national protests against racism, inequality and police brutality has durably positioned him on the wrong side of history.
Those who continue to support him at this point are truly Trump dead-enders. There is no way they constitute anywhere near a majority of Americans.
Covering this campaign with the hoary campaign-reporting algorithms made for typical elections would be a terrible mistake. Those algorithms were constructed to cover elections in which there was a rational choice between two reasonably proportional and plausible candidates.
And even under those conditions, they failed miserably, overemphasizing who's-up-who's-down horse-race coverage, substituting balance for fairness and false equivalence for judgment, and obsessing over tactics rather than substance.
This time around there are really only two sets of questions worth asking, and reporters should be focusing on them with almost all their energy:
- Can Trump and his dead-enders steal the election? There is ample evidence that Republicans will make unprecedented efforts to suppress the Democratic vote. Could they succeed enough to win in enough states to take the Electoral College? Could Trump sow so much doubt about the voting and counting process — especially during the pandemic he has allowed to spread uncontrollably — that he and his supporters will be able to throw the country into chaos rather than accept defeat? If they effectively hold the nation hostage, will the rest of us give in? What can we do to prepare for this and take counter-measures?
- Who are these people? What are their motivations? How did they become that way? Is there any way to teach them tolerance? Is there any way to reach them with accurate information? Is some large minority of the country forever wearing blinders and antagonistic to pluralism?
Reporters should have been vigorously asking this second set of questions starting the day after Trump's election in 2016. But considering that Trump had somehow managed to get nearly 63 million people to vote for him and was soon to be president, the nation's political reporters chose to embark upon more immediate inquiries.
Now, however, it's supremely relevant again — and perhaps more urgent than ever, given that these people are literally killing themselves and us right now, as well as potentially attempting to hijack our country for another four years.
Stealing the election
The possible theft of the 2020 presidential election gets almost no coverage in the elite media. But it gets a lot of attention from some very smart people who you all should be reading, if you aren't already.
Start with Ari Berman (@AriBerman) who writes for Mother Jones, and Rick Hasen (@rickhasen), an election law professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law who hosts the essential Election Law Blog.
Also, Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias (@marceelias) and his Democracy Docket website, investigative journalist Greg Palast (@Greg_Palast), who just published a book titled "How Trump Stole 2020," and others on this ever-growing Twitter list I'm curating.
There are so many powerful story lines, starting with the question of whether it will be safe for people to vote, especially in high-population areas where there are typically long lines for minority voters. There are many nightmare scenarios.
Meanwhile, Trump and the Republican Party are actively trying to limit voting by mail, even while reducing the number of polling places. They plan to deploy an army of poll-watchers in a transparent attempt to intimidate minority voters.
Our biggest newsrooms should be devoting considerably more resources to voter suppression, poor election preparation, election security and other related issues. ("I don't buy the argument that there are insufficient newsroom resources," Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in March.)
They should be hyper-aware of the critical subtext beneath everything that Trump and GOP leaders say and do, which is that their goal is to create the possibility of minority rule.
A critical recommendation from a recent ad hoc committee of election experts trying to assure a fair election in a time of crisis was for the media to "engage in a public information effort to provide voters with accurate information about the process by which election officials count votes and determine election winners."
The subtext: Early results could show Trump doing better than he does in the final results, potentially leading his supporters to cry foul.
We've never held an election during a pandemic before. Anything could happen. Voters need to be informed, and the media needs to be prepared.
Trump's racist re-election strategy is clear
The surprisingly good news about the political media today is that elite reporters are forcefully addressing the fundamentally racist nature of Trump's pitch to voters this time around.
It helps that Trump isn't giving them an alternative narrative. He is offering nothing new or conciliatory. He can't even articulate a second-term agenda. It's just confabulations and vitriol.
And it doesn't stop.
Political reporters prefer to couch their conclusions within stories about electoral tactics, and they use euphemisms to avoid outright describing the president of the United States as a racist. But they're calling it out pretty clearly.
So just in the last few weeks, you had Josh Dawsey writing in the Washington Post that despite mass protests and the pandemic, Trump "seems most intent on inflaming an already burning culture war, using his Twitter feed to focus on vandalism by protesters and the well-being of statues that have been targeted."
You had Robert Costa and Philip Rucker writing in the Post that "Although amplifying racism and stoking culture wars have been mainstays of Trump's public identity for decades, they have been particularly pronounced this summer as the president has reacted to the national reckoning over systemic discrimination by seeking to weaponize the anger and resentment of some white Americans for his own political gain."
You had Maggie Haberman in the New York Times not making any excuses, but stating straight up: "Almost every day in the last two weeks, Mr. Trump has sought to stoke white fear and resentment, portraying himself as a protector of an old order that polls show much of America believes perpetuates entrenched racism and wants to move beyond."
You had Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press writing that Trump "is wielding America's racial tensions as a reelection weapon, fiercely denouncing the racial justice movement on a near-daily basis with language stoking white resentment and aiming to drive his supporters to the polls."
In the Los Angeles Times, you had Eli Stokols noting that "Trump in recent days has indulged in a string of blatant appeals to racism."
At CNN, you had Manu Raju, Kevin Liptak, Ryan Nobles and Donald Judd declaring that Trump is "seizing on divisive culture wars and using race-baiting rhetoric as he seeks to fire up his base to give him a second term in office."
You had Jonathan Allen at NBC writing about a "spate of racist rhetoric" that "represents a return to Trump's favorite playbook of fear and bloviating."
Some, like Allen, described desperation at work: "Rather than deepening his support, though, this time it appears to have a more modest goal — to reclaim a portion of his eroding political base as his poll numbers slide."
And New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney concluded quite definitively that Trump's "focus on his base at the expense of swing voters, who have historically been a key target for presidential campaigns, is almost certainly not enough to win him a second term in the White House, as even some Republicans concede."
Sometimes, all this leads reporters to ask: Does he really want to win? So you had Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni writing in the New York Times that, according to anonymous sources, Trump's "self-destructive behavior has been so out of step for an incumbent in an election year that many advisers wonder if he is truly interested in serving a second term."
But that's a silly question. Of course Trump doesn't want to lose. He wants to win.
The smart questions to ask are: Is this appeal to racism working? And can he win even with only a minority of Americans behind him?
A smaller universe of potential voters
But wait, you say: Trump surprised everyone with the depth of his support last time — and not all of his supporters are racist or deluded. Who's to say he can't win re-election fairly?
The polls, however, are showing a distinct loss of support relative to his previous baseline. And there's a good reason for that shift: reality, and Trump's conduct, have stripped away a lot of outliers this time around.
Last time, Trump benefited from some good and bad excuses that simply aren't operative in 2020.
Last time, Trump was the ultimate protest vote — a safe way of giving the finger to the system, because there was no way he was actually going to win. That is no longer a reasonable option. He's the incumbent.
Last time, people suffering from economic anxiety or otherwise aggrieved by a political system unresponsive to their needs could legitimately have hoped that maybe Trump was a change agent for the better. Anyone who says they still believe that is either delusional or dishonest.
Last time, when Trump spoke of "draining the swamp," some people might legitimately have fallen for it. No more.
Even the plutocrats who are rightfully beholden to Trump for his huge tax cuts must now realize the whole national enterprise is in danger.
And a lot of people really hated Hillary Clinton — some because of her personal history, but a lot simply because she was a woman.
What makes these people tick?
Interviewing voters has taken on a a bit of a bad name after a seemingly endless series of big-media visits to heartland diners to hear Trump supporters talk about how, yes, amazingly enough, they still support Trump.
But we need to get a better understanding of why, and that requires talking to them.
Right now, pretty much the only Trump supporters that reporters regularly quote are those in a very small, terribly atypical subset: elected officials and political operatives who depend on him for their power and livelihood. They are not going to say anything revelatory or useful; their job is to lie with some degree of erudition. Indeed, their job is precisely to provide a polite cover story for the actual, visceral appeal Trump is making to his dead-enders.
Interviewing the dead-enders properly, however, requires skillsets not necessarily in abundance in the political press corps. The key is not to settle for a few soundbites about how much they (still) like the guy, or a few talking points they lifted from Fox News.
That means acting more like sociologists than typical political reporters. It means exploring not just voters' political opinions, but their formative moments and their value systems. It means exploring certain dynamics that rarely get much attention from journalists: peer pressure, cultural tribalism, news consumption, residential segregation and educational standards, among others.
(See my October essay, "Political journalists are doing voter interviews all wrong," which includes recommendations from a wonderful report from the Solutions Journalism Network called Complicating the Narratives, about how to understand what's underneath someone's political rage.)
None of this means ignoring all the other voters, of course. It still feels like anti-Trump voters are basically invisible to elite political reporters. They're treated like background noise, rather than the voice of the majority.
So it was nice to see New York Times reporter Katie Glueck talk to suburban voters in swing states and report last week, without any hemming and hawing, that those interviews "revealed abhorrence for Mr. Trump's growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage."
Studies show: Trump voters are dangerous
Some studies have reached profoundly disturbing conclusions about Trump voters, which should inform the coverage.
Political science professor Philip Klinkner famously wrote a piece in Vox in 2017 headlined "The easiest way to guess if someone supports Trump? Ask if Obama is a Muslim." He found that a high "racial resentment" score was more strongly correlated with Trump support than any other factor, other than simply "being a Republican."
The Pew Research Center, using its "feeling thermometer" ratings, found "that attitudes about immigration, Islam and racial diversity are strongly associated" with how "warmly" Republican voters feel about Trump — much more so even than "opinions about whether the U.S. economic system is unfair and whether business profits are excessive." Racists feel very warmly about him indeed.
The Democracy Fund's Voter Study Group has consistently found that about a quarter of American voters like the idea of a political system with a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress and elections; fully 18 percent support military rule. Their latest survey found that "the highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative, and have negative attitudes toward racial minorities."
Fact-rejection is a threat to journalism
If there's one particular strand of Trump support that journalists should be pulling out for closer attention, it's what I call fact-rejection.
That's because it's a challenge to our values — and our existence.
While there have been a number of academic studies about the rise of misinformation and disinformation, there's been shockingly little actual on-the-ground reporting.
Reporters — especially local reporters, who know their community — should fan out and talk to voters, asking them what they believe is true, and why. Where reporters encounter fact-rejection, they should (gently) explore: Who is susceptible and why? How deeply does it affect people? How is it transmitted? What role does Fox News play in it, compared to social media, compared to social grouping? How persistent is it? What effect does it have in real life? And is there any way for people to recover?
These are not the kinds of questions reporters generally ask. But how people get the news, and what they believe, is increasingly central to so much of what we write about, including, of course, this election.
This kind of reporting, it seems to me, would be a lot more personally satisfying to journalists — and a lot more valuable to readers and viewers — then just more-of-the-same election coverage, which would inevitably normalize what is a profoundly abnormal campaign.