Donald Trump’s dominance of the GOP presidential race has largely been credited to a rejection of the Republican “establishment” in favor of an outspoken, combative “outsider.” While this may be partly true, another reason has been overlooked: an open distrust and rejection of the traditional mainstream media by voters.
The media’s inability to sink or thwart Trump, despite great effort, shows just how much people’s trust and respect for traditional media has fallen.
I am reminded of one of Aesop’s fables, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Over the years, the mainstream media repeatedly dumped on “extremist” conservative candidates in hysterical fashion, whether through subtle bias, outright condemnation (Romney’s leaked "47%" remarks) or focusing on trivial matters (remember Mitt Romney’s “Binders full of women?”).
These trivial "issues" distract from important ones. After years of being told that their preferred candidate is a "racist," "homophobic," "sexist," "Islamophobic," "bigoted," "anti-woman" and so forth, the American electorate has finally had enough.
Enter Donald Trump. Here is a candidate who is upending the entire campaign system. Trump not only plays the media game, he repeatedly wins at it, despite the many attempts to attack and thwart his popularity. Trump is able to get his message out and stay popular despite the many attacks being levelled at him.
Why? In part because conservatives and the public have been told for so long that this or that conservative candidate is a “racist, sexist, homophobic bigot” that people just don’t believe it anymore.
I’m not saying any of those adjectives are or are not applicable to Trump, but that at this point it doesn’t matter if they are. People simply don’t trust the media or tune them out altogether. Those terms have been so overused for the past 15 years that they have lost their meaning and their impact.
Trump is also upending the media’s “outrage” game. Traditionally, the second a politician says anything remotely controversial or politically incorrect, the media will find someone, anyone, who was offended by the remarks and broadcast it far and wide. Inevitably, the politician will be confronted by a reporter who asks “Spokesperson for victim group X was offended by your remarks on Y, will you apologize?” At this point, the politician will apologize 99% of the time, regardless of whether or not his statement was valid.
This has changed with Trump.
Trump has said questionable and troubling things, and has phrased reasonable things in the most non-politically correct way possible. If a traditional politician had ever said anything similar, they likely would have walked back the remarks and issued an apology for any “offense” caused by the statements.
Trump, however, refuses to apologize, even in situations where a reasonable person thinks he should. This strategy has endeared him to elements of the electorate who are simply sick of this kind of unproductive discourse. By refusing to apologize, Trump looks strong, ensures that his remarks and his opinion on an issue get maximum coverage, and essentially sticks it to the media at the same time.
This tactic, in conjunction with polls showing the public’s distrust in the media being at all-time high have helped sustain Trump in his White House bid. This is proving true even with Fox News, with whom Trump has sparred during the nomination.
Whether Trump becomes the GOP nominee remains to be seen. However, his unapologetic and brash approach has completely upended politics as we know it. Trump was smart to recognize people’s annoyance with and distrust of the established media and political institutions -- heck, any institution of that matter if you add Bernie Sanders’ supporters into the mix -- and has run his campaign accordingly.
If the Republicans face a disastrous loss in the 2016 election as many are predicting (something I’m not convinced of yet), perhaps the one good thing that will come of this will be fewer conservative politicians falling victim to media "gotcha" and "outrage" games.