American Democracy’s Trump Trap
Politicians of all stripes have been lavishing praise on the idea of America as a liberal democracy for centuries. It’s one of the few common threads that seem to transcend ideological, partisan and generational lines. You’ve heard it before:
Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people
Democracy will win — because a government’s legitimacy can only come from citizens
It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world…
George W. Bush
Inspirational words, no doubt.
The founding fathers, enlightenment age pioneers of the constitutional, republican, representative and democratic system we enjoy, believed in the abstract idea of democracy too. The American revolution was practically driven by the sentiment that taxation imposed by a government who provided no representation was tantamount to tyranny. History has proven them right. However, even the founding fathers had the foresight to realize fatal flaws in the democratic ideal – and acted to amend them.
America is not a pure, direct democracy. Thomas Jefferson understood full well the perils of unfettered majoritarian rule, as did his colleagues, and sought the creation of a system that provided representation for the masses while also creating structural safeguards to ensure that the system wouldn’t ultimately succumb to the pitfalls of mob rule and a fickle public.
In other words, democracy is good but too much democracy is dangerous. The fingerprints of this sentiment are evident in our electoral system and constitution – a compromise between the recognition that laws should be shaped by the will of the public to an extent, and the need to have stable, professional governmental leadership structure. This is why things like the Senate, Electoral College and the Supreme Court exist.
Central to this dichotomy is the recognition that public opinion could be easily swayed by a powerful messenger who could conceivably consolidate power and erode the rights of the minority. This was also an admission that individual freedoms are put at risk when the public is not educated enough to tell good policy from bad, or strong leadership from tyranny. In Jefferson’s words, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
So who is the serve as the primary educator of the public, the gatekeeper of our democracy charged with informing citizens? The free press, of course.
But what happens when the press becomes so commoditized that its incentive to sensationalize in pursuit of profits overpower their solemn duty to inform, scrutinize, analyze and vet our political leaders? That’s when politics turns into pageantry, and democracy loses.
The Trump Trap
Seasoned political observers, media stalwarts and party leaders alike have been in a state of awe and bewilderment at the rise of Donald Trump, whose climb to the pinnacle of power in the Republican party has seemingly defied the laws of political gravity. But how did he get there?
Against the combined efforts of partisan and non-partisan journalist, a hastily organized but well funded effort within his own party by the #NeverTrump movement, unaided by a campaign war chest or a traditional campaign organization, how has Trump managed to pull off what is essentially a hostile takeover of one of the two major political parties that dominate American political life?
By masterfully manipulating the media, of course.
Donald J. Trump is no stranger to the business dynamic underpinning the current media environment, where sensationalization, ratings and clicks matter most. He has made his name and built his personal brand by masterfully orchestrating his public persona in a way that makes covering him too good to pass up. He is brash, egocentric, unapologetic, untethered to facts, controversial to the nth degree and as confrontational as they come. In other words, he is a living tabloid.
How much free media has Trump earned, one might ask? Billions. As the New York Times recently pointed out, Trump has earned more in free media coverage than all his competitors on both sides of the isles have earned combined. Over $2 billion of free coverage has been given to the Trump campaign. According to the statistical wiz kids at FiveThirtyEight.com, 62% of television coverage about GOP candidates were about Trump and 54% of digital and print coverage about the GOP race was about Trump as well – in a field of 17 candidates, this is absurd.
When Trump announced his intention to run, the media viewed it as a lucrative, if soon to be short lived, opportunity – like a human interest piece. “This man is great for ratings,” they figured, but the public will surely write him off when they head into the voting booth. Undoubtedly, the inaccuracy of his statements, the outrage over his policy proposals and the near unanimous ridicule he faced from well respected leaders in his own party would sink the Trump ship; it didn’t.
As he started to win primary after primary, an observer can almost feel the discomfort metastasize on the collective psyche of both the media and political establishment. The fourth estate had failed. Democracy had been perverted.
“Sure, he gets lots of free coverage, but most of the media coverage of him has been negative and scathing,” one might say. That is correct, but it is besides the point. Trump has set the agenda and shaped the narrative from the day he announced his candidacy. And how has he set the agenda? He has transformed politics into a personality contest.
“Low energy Jeb”
The list goes on.
Trump has turned what should be an issues driven campaign into a Miss Universe Pageant in which all other contestants have been forced to participate.
On any given day, in any news cycle, Presidential candidates have had to spend their precious air time either commenting on an off the cuff “proposal” Trump had recently made or tweeted, or defending themselves against often ludicrous and counterfactual attacks made on their character or record by The Donald. This is, after all, the man who catapulted to political stardom by claiming that Barack Obama was not an American citizen.
Now, before you get up in arms about the media’s role in Trump’s rise, it’s important to note that many in the media were not complicit actors in the current state of affairs. Many respected journalists went to great lengths to fact check his positions and statements, pundits of all stripes dedicated huge segments of their shows to taking Trump down on the substance of his message or the rhetoric and tone he has utilized on the campaign trail. But no one in the media could manage to do the one thing that has proven effective in stopping Trump – pivot the conversation exclusively to the issues.
The same market forces that make “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” more popular than anything on CSPAN are at play in the boardrooms at CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the major network news outlets. The “invisible hand of the market,” that is, the preference of the American consumers, has made the prospect of not covering Trump a proverbial death sentence to the bottom line. So here we are.
We have seemed to reach a new era of lowest common denominator politics, where hyperbole beats nuance, oversimplification trumps facts, demagoguery prevails over thoughtful solution making, and we are all partly to blame. Jefferson must have seen this coming.