For the past year and a half, the more responsible elements of the media have endeavored to tell a specific story about the presidential election, to make one thing clear above all others: Republican nominee Donald Trump has widely embraced all manner of bigots, making a home for them in his campaign.
This simple fact has been pounded home, over and over again, in print, online and on television. And although these types of stories are, conveniently, good for revenue ― they sell papers, grab eyeballs, drive traffic ― I’ve taken the media at their word that they sincerely believe attention must be paid to this development.
Should I have, do you think?
I’m starting to wonder, because over the weekend, all of this reportorial effort was echoed and confirmed by the other major-party candidate in the race, Hillary Clinton. At a fundraiser this past Friday, Clinton honored the work of countless reporters when she described “half” of Trump’s supporters as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenopobic, Islamaphobic ― you name it,” and declared that these many types of bigots belong to a “basket of deplorables.”
Ah, vindication! Legitimacy! For the political journalists who’d been saying the same thing about Trump supporters for over a year, this must have been a sweet moment, yes? A time to celebrate, a time to rejoice that one of the world’s most visible and influential public figures was basically saying Yup, you were right?
Ha ha, not really. I mean, yes, there has been some of that. But by and large, the response from the media, upon hearing Clinton say this stuff that the media has been saying for months and months and months, was: What! How dare you!
It raises some uncomfortable questions: Is everything that’s been said and written about Trump’s supporters true? And if so, are only some people permitted to acknowledge this truth? Ultimately, this minor madness tells us less about Clinton and more about the political press, their love of banal cliches and their constant demand that Clinton reveal “authenticity,” despite the fact that they wouldn’t know the first thing about it.
There can be no mistake: The media has undertaken a massive effort to inform readers that Trump’s most public and passionate supporters are a massive cuddle-puddle of debased bigots. From the outset, we’ve been told that this is a darkness that Trump has “tapped into,” or “empowered,” or “unleashed.” He’s buoyed by a “spasm of hatred” that “no one should have been surprised by.” He “opened a sealed door against bigotry.” Many people have openly wondered, not unreasonably, whether the sickness at the heart of the Trump movement will wreak destruction upon the body politic even if the man himself loses.
The media has spared no expense to tell this story, time and time again. They’ve dispatched poets and deep thinkers, grizzled veteran authors and sad young literary men to cover this phenomenon. They’ve turned tweetstorms about the lumpen insanity of Trump’s rallies into star vehicles. They’ve been quick to point out the numerous instances in which Trump has signaled that he’s pretty much OK with this segment of his fan base. Data has been cited, numbers crunched.
The New York Times has certainly dropped the ball a few times during this campaign, but it’s also done yeoman’s work to expose as many readers as possible to the raw and uncensored voices of Trump rally attendees, along the way providing as much evidence of the “basket of deplorables” as anyone could want. From the Times:
New York Times reporters have spent over a year covering Donald J. Trump’s rallies, witnessing so many provocations and heated confrontations at them that the cumulative effect can be numbing: A sharp sting that quickly dulls from repetition.
But what struck us was the frequency with which some Trump supporters use coarse, vitriolic, even violent language — in the epithets they shout and chant, the signs they carry, the T-shirts they wear — a pattern not seen in connection with any other recent political candidate, in any party.
Not everyone attending a Trump rally behaves this way. In fact, many are polite and well mannered. But while protesters are often shouted down, crowds seldom express disapproval of the crude slogans and angry outbursts by Mr. Trump’s supporters. Indeed, these displays have become inextricably bound with the Trump show itself — as much as the snaking entrance lines and the calls to “build a wall” along the border with Mexico.
Last month, NBC reporter Katy Tur wrote an essay for Marie Claire about following Trump on the campaign trail. After its publication, there was only one part of it that anyone wanted to talk about ― the time Trump called out Tur by name at a rally in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, referring to Tur as a liar and urging the crowd to hurl invective at her. “The crowd,” she wrote, “feeding off Trump, seemed to turn on me like a large animal, angry, and unchained.” Tur continued:
It wasn’t until hours later, when Secret Service took the extraordinary step of walking me to my car, that the incident sank in.
The wave of insults, harassment, and threats, via various social-media feeds, hasn’t stopped since. Many of the attacks are unprintable.
“MAYBE A FEW JOURNALISTS DO NEED TO BE WHACKED,” tweeted someone with the handle GuyScott33, two weeks after Trump lashed out. “MAYBE THEN THEYD STOP BEI[N]G BIASED HACKS. KILL EM ALL STARTING W/ KATY TUR.”
Tur has received the sympathy and support of her media colleagues, which is as it should be. In light of this and plenty of other incidents, any member of the political press would have to make a serious, sustained effort not to see that Trump’s campaign has functioned as a kind of Bat-Signal for some very, very angry, hateful, dangerous types. So you’d think that when another presidential candidate essentially confirms all of this publicly, reporters would be just the smallest bit appreciative.
Not so much!
Now, it’s true that “empty platitudes grease the wheels of political reporting,” as Andrew Gelman wrote at The Washington Post last year. So it hasn’t really been a surprise these past few days to hear political journalists tsk-tsking about some set of “rules” as if that’s a real thing everyone knows about. We’ve also heard some cockeyed scolding about how if someone is a bigot, and you accurately describe them as such, it really means you’re the bigot. None of this makes any real sense, given the tone with which the media has previously covered the Trump groundswell ― a tone that’s ranged between concern and alarm for the better part of this election cycle.
“Is that how political reporting has to be done?” asks Gelman. “You have an opinion and then you say fact-free, reasonable-sounding things that line up with the opinion?” Basically, yes: The “gaffe” subroutine has been initiated, and it has to play itself out to the end.
In fact, the way in which many media figures responded to Clinton’s observation basically required them to first abandon much of what they have already documented about Trump’s supporters. Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates notes: “It is easy enough to look into Clinton’s claim and verify it or falsify it. The numbers are all around us.” The only way to criticize Clinton for what she did ― which, again, was just to point out racism and go “hey, that right there, that’s racism”― is to ignore many months’ worth of good reporting and simply go, as Gelman says, fact-free.
Coates puts a finger on something important: If it were possible to make a factual case against Clinton, someone would make it. No one has done that, because the facts are on Clinton’s side. But that hasn’t stopped the fingers from wagging. Per Coates:
To understand how truly bizarre this method of opining is, consider the following: Had polling showed that relatively few Trump supporters believe black people are lazy and criminally-inclined, if only a tiny minority of Trump supporters believed that Muslims should be banned from the country, if birtherism carried no real weight among them, would journalists decline to point this out as they excoriated her? Of course not. But the case against Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” is a triumph of style over substance, of clamorous white grievance over knowable facts.
Here’s the real irony: One of the biggest demands to which the political press has constantly subjected Clinton is that she be “authentic.” That’s tricky for a candidate whose relationship with the media has grown toxic and mutually corrosive. Having written about this aspect of Clinton’s public life, I’ll acknowledge that in many ways, she bears some of the blame for this. Another current campaign story ― Clinton’s bout of pneumonia, and the abrupt way in which it’s been disclosed ― provides a good illustration of this problem. Clinton’s so over-concerned about the way the media would “play” this story that she can’t simply be forthright about what’s going on. Everyone loses.
But the wrongheadedness of the whole “authenticity” demand ― that’s all on the media. Last April, The New Republic’s Elspeth Reeve thoroughly examined the media’s “hunt for an authentic Hillary Clinton,” and how whenever they actually caught sight of it, they ended up being inflamed and outraged:
In Clinton’s most famous feminist moment ― “I suppose I could’ve stayed home and baked cookies and have teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life” ― she was too authentic. History has mostly forgotten that Clinton was responding to Jerry Brown’s claim that her law firm benefitted from Arkansas state business, and not speaking about stay-at-home moms. But if you watch the video, there’s an edge to her voice, an obvious annoyance at what she considers a sexist attack.
How did this moment go over? The Boston Globe’s Joan Wickersham remembers it well:
She got slammed. The cookie-baking reference was seized upon as evidence not just that Hillary wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, but that she had contempt for women who had made this choice. (What she really had contempt for was the assumption that, for a politician’s wife, this was the only choice.) The press and the public chose to misunderstand her, and they made her atone.
This sounds familiar!
You would think that the political media, hearing a candidate loudly affirming what they’ve been telling readers for the better part of two years, would award that candidate some points for authenticity. Instead, we have people demanding that Clinton not mention this demonstrable truth, that she not speak of these Trump supporters in the same way the media has characterized them, that she not acknowledge the way Trump’s tapping into this dark well of hate represents a larger problem for the country she hopes to govern.
The overall message to Clinton that’s bubbling up in some quarters, in the wake of her “basket of deplorables” remarks, is this: No, no. We get to say that about Trump supporters. You’re not allowed. You are required to fake it. You have to be nice to these people.
And this is just as Reeve predicted: “To become more ‘authentic,’ Hillary must become even more fake.”
As Clinton takes heat for simply saying what journalists have been saying throughout the campaign, it should be noted that those who fit squarely inside the “basket of deplorables” are holding press conferences ― confirming their own existence, for anyone who needs proof. We’re here, they tell us. We’re as bad as you’ve heard. And by the way ― we enjoy the attention. What these people would really like ― indeed, what they see a Trump presidency as paving the way for ― is a white-supremacist nation-state of their own. And since there have been no reports of Pepe the Frog statues being erected in Antarctica, or on the moon, one concludes that the 1488 types probably want to set up their caliphate right here in the U.S. For the Trump campaign’s part, they’ve made sure this group got a wink on Twitter. Don’t worry, guys, we see you. Keep up the good work.
It wasn’t long ago that the media praised Clinton for speaking to these concerns. Now, I’m starting to wonder if the political press truly has the stamina to take on this “basket of deplorables” that they’ve spent a considerable portion of their recent lives investigating.
It’s a scary thing to see so many in the media suddenly lose their nerve, revealing that they lack the stomach for the confrontation they initiated. Freedom of the press is pretty great in theory, but it’s not worth much if you’re unwilling to do something courageous with it.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.