Slouching Toward Cleveland: The Time of Trump

As Donald Trump prepares to lay claim to the Republican Party’s mantle, he leaves the discarded predictions of his demise in his wake. Both the nature of his candidacy and his success have shattered all expectations.

Not surprisingly, with so much conventional wisdom overturned, many have repaired back to history to try and make sense of it all. Writing in the Washington Post, Robert Kagan joined me (and historian Bob Paxton) in giving serious consideration to a fascist analogy in an op-ed titled, “This is How Fascism Comes to America.” Last week George Packer of The New Yorker called Trump a “proto-fascist,” presumably on the assumption that the United States never had a native fascist strain (it has).

Others look abroad for suitable comparisons. Sylvie Kauffman of Le Monde finds Trump compatible with the surging popularity of far-right political parties throughout Europe, and Alexander Stille has drawn a compelling parallel between the lives and the politics of Trump and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

Why Look Elsewhere?

In the coming days, as we approach the Republican convention in Cleveland in July, it will be critical to seize upon the insights offered in these kinds of commentaries, ones that draw from a different time, or call upon knowledge of a different place. I made an effort to do just that this past March, when I wrote what others shied away from: “Sorry Folks, It is Fascism.”

Since then, others have tentatively — and, one hopes with caution and understanding — reached a similar conclusion.

But not so the mainstream news media. Despite failing at their own game, journalists continue to refrain from speaking candidly, or even searchingly, about Donald Trump.

This underscores the importance of examining the news media itself, and to do so with same ambitious scope that Trump demands. After all, Trump’s success in our current moment would not be possible were it not for other changes underway for a long time.

Our Media Moment

In a piece of dark irony, the need for more rigorous analysis of news coverage coincides with the Trump campaign’s well-advertised media “charm offensive,” intended to shear Trump of his most unsettling characteristics, or at least spare his campaign from suffering the consequences of them. As the news cycle invites more spin, unmoored and unaccountable, the mechanisms that enable it must be made visible and subject to inspection.

Unfortunately, history bears out the necessity for doing so. Although some elements of the media are unique to our particular moment, the tendency to downgrade a candidate’s racism is not. Time and again we see the unwillingness to give prominence to Trump’s bigotry; many in the news media refuse to even acknowledge it. In my view, this reluctance stems from a misguided and debased notion of neutrality that demands more attention.

This is particularly concerning in light of the central place of bigotry in Trump’s campaign. His willingness to characterize certain ethnicities and religious beliefs in a derogatory fashion does not merely relegate his other policy positions subordinate; it renders them irrelevant. His racism is the structuring feature of his candidacy — the most pronounced shared view among his supporters — yet, among journalists, it is apparently regarded as impolite or inappropriate to speak of it.

Added to and compounding this problem is the way in which the news media provides a platform to Trump’s abhorrent and nonsensical ideas without placing them in context or subjecting them to critique. This superficial gloss is also in need of historical grounding: to repeat assertions or proposals that effectively constitute “lies” without any accompanying analysis is to shun an obligation that many of the privileges and rights of the modern press function rely upon. Yet this point goes without notice or comment — a sign, perhaps, of how poor any profession is at policing itself, and also an indication of how detached and uninvolved other stewards of the corporate news media have become. Donald Trump’s campaign brings these irresponsible patterns of journalism into sharp focus, but it certainly cannot be said to be responsible for them, nor would his defeat necessarily bring them to an end.

Over the next few weeks, this space will be given over to taking seriously what too many in the news media regarded as a joke for too long: the candidacy of Donald Trump. With journalists unable to provide meaningful reference points to elucidate our modern politics, it is time to look elsewhere, both to the past and to other places, to learn what we can, well before we will be forced to ask whether some revelation is at hand.

“Surely some revelation is at hand…
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats