The Trump Obsession Neglects (and Obscures) What Is Really Happening in 2016

The Trump Obsession Neglects (and Obscures) What Is Really Happening in 2016

The Trump Obsession Neglects (and Obscures) What Is Really Happening in 2016

There are real issues and real trends in play that are bigger than one man.


Who would have thought that a handful of caucuses and a Louisiana primary would make a Saturday in March “super”?

But so it has.

The intensity of the 2016 race—or, at the very least, the determination of major media outlets to make every twist and turn on Donald Trump’s campaign trail into an epic pivot—is such that media outlets followed their March 1 “Super Tuesday” coverage by encouraging viewers to tune in for coverage of a March 5 “Super Saturday” that will include Democratic caucuses in Kansas and Nebraska and Republican caucuses in Kansas, Kentucky, and Maine. Louisianans of both partisanships will cast the only primary votes. And, as “Super Saturday” gives way to what will surely be a very fine Sunday, Maine Democrats weigh in.

Should we bemoan the hype?

Not entirely.

More attention to the electoral process is good. The usually neglected caucuses and primaries of smaller states that vote on weekends have always deserved attention. This is part of how nominees and presidents are chosen, part of what Walt Whitman celebrated as “the peaceful choice of all…these stormy gusts and winds [that] waft precious ships…” This is democracy in play, and our media ought to give it attention.

While the excitement surrounding Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 attracted a great deal of media coverage, this year’s campaign has literally taken over cable news, and much of broadcast news. Media outlets have come (after years of fostering the fantasy that Americans were not interested in politics) to recognize that the people really do care about what is done in their name by governments that should gain their legitimacy from voters—not the backroom scheming of campaign donors and lobbyists. Democracy can only work when it is out in the open and engaging, when people are drawn into the process rather than pushed away.

So it is good to get excited about “Super Tuesdays” and “Super Saturdays.”

This progression is a good one.

Unfortunately, the progression has been uneven—so uneven that is creating new challenges for democracy.

The full picture of what is happening in both parties is being obscured, as the character and content of the campaign is trumped by an obsessive focus on one man.

The easy media calculus on a “Super Saturday,” and on the next “Super Tuesday,” and on the “Super Tuesday” after that will be to cover anything and everything having to do with Donald Trump.

Trump’s candidacy is disruptive, to be sure. It has the Republican establishment agitated, and if patterns continue it will have the whole of the American establishment agitated. Trump merits a lot of coverage.

But the 2016 race cannot merely be about Trump, and those who say #NeverTrump. It has to go deeper, and it has to get beyond a mere politics of personality.

“When it’s all Trump all the time on TV, that’s not a reflection of what’s happening with the campaign, on the Republican side or the Democratic side,” says state Representative Diane Russell, a Maine Democrat who is in the thick of that state’s caucus campaigning. “There are a lot of nuances to politics and to policy. This is a really amazing election season, and people are talking about so much more than Trump.”

Representative Russell is right. The media should be reflecting the whole of the 2016 race—not just the Trump circus.

To do that, our media must cover the whole of the competition on the Republican and Democratic sides—not just the latest Trump rally or Trump tweet, and not just the latest reactions to Trump rallies and Trump tweets. This has not been happening since the first “Super Tuesday.”

When Mitt Romney gave a vapid speech in which he did not say anything new about Trump, did not endorse a candidate against Trump, and did not even say whether his opposition to Trump would extend from primary season objections to a general election refusal to vote for Trump, it was the biggest story of the Thursday that fell between “Super Tuesday” and “Super Saturday.”

Everything else—aside from Trump’s response to Romney—was an afterthought.

This obsessive focus on one candidate warps the rest of the competition. It marginalizes the Republicans who are running against Trump, turning them into what Romney foolishly proposed when he refused to endorse an individual contender: an also-ran gumbo that is served up as some sort of free-floating, Republican establishment–approved alternative to Trumpism. It also neglects the serious race that is still playing out on the Democratic side, where the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders won as many states on Super Tuesday from front-runner Hillary Clinton as the campaigns of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich did in combination.

Most of all, it neglects the intersections between the Republican and Democratic races, which tell the real story of 2016. Americans are strikingly agitated about not just politics and governance but the economic instability of the moment. They know something is not right. No candidate polls so highly in surveys of the American electorate as the notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The latest Economist/YouGov and Associated Press/GfK polls show that 68 percent of voters think the United States is off course. This is not a partisan, or ideological, statement of discontent. Americans who approve of Barack Obama’s performance as president and Americans who disapprove, self-identified Democrats and self-identified Republicans, share a concern that the United States is not making the right choices, let alone the right preparations, for the future. They’re right. Yet, Trump-obsessed coverage of the 2016 campaign does not begin to address the deeper issues of economic inequality and economic instability that underpin our national disquiet, nor does it encourage the candidates or the parties to speak in a realistic sense about the way in which a digital revolution, automation and globalization are causing Americans to fear a “new economy” that looks an awfully lot like the old Gilded Age.

Trump’s rise is a symptom of the circumstance, a manifestation of the moment. But it is not the whole of the moment. Trump is a story, to be sure. But to make him the sole story misses what is really happening in the 2016 campaign.

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