Can the Unthinkable Happen?

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by Pancho

Seven weeks to go; can the unthinkable happen? We believe that surely it cannot. We can read the polls, which are more reassuring than not, and Nate Silver’s probability calculations, which have consistently shown since the summer, with fluctuations, that Hillary Clinton is far more likely to be elected than Donald Trump. We exhale and even allow ourselves to daydream a little when we read reports that Clinton is close or occasionally ahead in states like Arizona and even Georgia, where wins would ensure a resounding rejection of Trumpismus.

But these points are somehow never quite as reassuring as they ought to be. They struggle for traction in a media environment that helped Trump during the primary season and that has continued to do so, not because any leading news organizations are openly for him,1 but because the “objective” American press doesn’t know how to deal with a man who says something false nearly every time he speaks (and gives much more offense besides). The press has had few ways, in the interest of maintaining “balance,” of telling its readers the core frank truth about the man.

In late January, The Huffington Post started appending the following “Editor’s Note” to the bottom of every story it has published about Trump:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther, and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims—1.6 billion members of an entire religion—from entering the US.

It’s an attempt to push back against the evanescent nature of “news,” in which if Trump refrains from saying something racist for four days straight the memory of his racism recedes, and to remind readers on a daily basis who Trump is. But the major news organizations would never do anything like this. And so by its very nature and architecture, news reporting—eager to flesh out arguments and counterarguments but ever so cautious about rendering judgments—favors the prevaricator and the provocateur, who is so much better at “making news” than his comparatively sober opponent.

The effect is to make the provocateur seem somehow normal. James Fallows discussed an interesting case in point recently. On August 25, Clinton gave a detailed and thoroughly documented speech on the “alt-right,” the newish radical fringe and white supremacist movement that has rallied to Trump, who responded by calling Clinton a “bigot.” Fallows noted: “There was no detailed case about Hillary Clinton’s supposed bigotry—literally, none. There was just the one word.”2 The headline in The Washington Post? “Clinton, Trump Exchange Racially Charged Accusations.”

On September 7, at a sort of pre-debate meeting on MSNBC called the commander-in-chief forum, at which each candidate was questioned separately for thirty minutes by the NBC news personality Matt Lauer, Trump lied repeatedly without challenge by Lauer. After aggressively prodding Clinton on the e-mail matter, the host let Trump’s false statements on much more consequential global issues pass largely…

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