After a long summer of denial and disparagement, even the most elite precincts of the media establishment are trying to come to grips with Donald Trump.
First it was the cable news networks, which instantly realized that Trump was good box office, followed by the network morning shows. Then some of the columnists who had dismissed him as a sideshow began to grapple with his rising poll numbers, even those who continued to hammer him.
That was followed by a series of faulty predictions that Trump was about to implode because of this or that corrosive comment, to the point that some talking heads simply announced that they were getting out of the forecasting business.
Trump even scored a “60 Minutes” profile on Sunday for the season opener--drawing 15 million viewers--and later declared that CBS anchor Scott Pelley had been fair to him.
Now some other upscale outlets, rather late to the party, are joining in the dark arts of psychoanalysis: What makes Donald Trump tick, and how has he managed to completely upend the rituals and decorum of a presidential campaign and play by his own set of rules?
What does it say about the electorate that he has struck such a deep chord—and, I would add, what does it say about the media and political insiders who suddenly seemed so clueless?
The New York Times Magazine has just posted its profile by Mark Leibovich, the author of “This Town.” And he begins with an extensive mea culpa:
“Initially, I dismissed him as a nativist clown, a chief perpetrator of the false notion that President Obama was not born in the United States — the ‘birther’ movement. And I was, of course, way too incredibly serious and high-minded to ever sully myself by getting so close to Donald Trump.
“I initially doubted that he would even run. I assumed that his serial and public flirtations with the idea over several election cycles were just another facet of his existential publicity sustenance. I figured that even if Trump did run, his conspiracy-mongering, reality-show orientations and garish tabloid sensibilities would make him unacceptable to the polite company of American politics and mainstream media. It would render him a fringe player. So I decided not to write about him, and I felt proud and honorable about my decision.”
A good confession by Leibovich, who seemed charmed by the generous access after negotiating with Hillary Clinton’s staff over, for example, whether any depiction of her campaign office itself would be off the record.
Unlike overly programmed politicians, he writes, “Trump understands and appreciates that reporters like to be given the time of day. It’s symbiotic in his case because he does in fact pay obsessive attention to what is said and written and tweeted about him. Trump is always saying that so-and-so TV pundit ‘spoke very nicely’ about him on some morning show and that some other writer ‘who used to kill me’ has now come around to ‘loving me.’’’
This is an important point: Journalists not only love that Trump is available, but that he knows how to stir the pot and make news—even at the risk that he will rip them afterward. There are few things more frustrating than landing an interview with a presidential candidate and getting the same canned sound bites we’ve all heard before.
So, a scene from the Trump jet:
“He kept flipping between Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, sampling the commentary in tiny snippets. Whenever a new talking head came on screen, Trump offered a scouting report based on the overriding factor of how he or she had treated him. ‘This guy’s been great to me,’ he said when Bill O’Reilly of Fox appeared (less so O’Reilly’s guest, Brit Hume, also of Fox). Kevin Madden of CNN, a Republican strategist, was a ‘pure Romney guy,’ while Ana Navarro, a Republican media consultant and Jeb Bush supporter, was ‘so bad, so pathetic, awful — I don’t know why she’s on television.’ Click to Fox News. Jeb Bush was saying something in Spanish. Click to MSNBC. Hillary Clinton was saying she wished Trump would start ‘respecting women’ rather than ‘cherishing women.’ (‘She speaks so poorly, I think she’s in trouble,’ Trump said.) Click to CNN. It showed a graphic reporting that 70 percent of Latinos had a negative view of Trump. Click to Fox News. Trump asked for another plate of au gratin.”
The Donald, never unplugged.
Another major piece appears in New York Magazine by Frank Rich, the former Times columnist, unabashed liberal and consultant on “Veep” who doesn’t hide his disdain for Trump. He writes, for instance, of “the quest to explain” how “the billionaire’s runaway clown car went into overdrive.”
But Rich feels compelled to give Trump his due, even as a flawed messenger: “It’s possible that his buffoonery poses no lasting danger. Quite the contrary: His unexpected monopoly of center stage may well be the best thing to happen to our politics since the arrival of Barack Obama.”
Trump, he argues, “has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform…By calling attention to that sorry state of affairs 24/7, Trump’s impersonation of a crypto-fascist clown is delivering the most persuasively bipartisan message of 2016.”
While allowing that Trump commits heresy on such matters as taxing hedge-fund guys, Rich ultimately blames the Republican culture: “On the matters of race, women, and immigration that threaten the GOP’s future viability in nonwhite, non-male America, he is at one with his party’s base. What he does so rudely is call the GOP’s bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo, focus-group-tested euphemisms, and consultantspeak.”
This is the last line of defense for the anti-Trump contingent: The problem is not The Donald, it’s the way he caters to the dark passions of conservative Republicans. But many Democrats are also fed up with politics as usual, which is why socialist Bernie Sanders has improbably pulled close to Hillary in the polls.
With his new tax-cut proposal, Trump has kicked off the second phase of his campaign, one in which he’s offering policy as well as persona. Asked by Matt Lauer yesterday what he would do if his poll numbers sink, Trump said: "If I think for some reason it's not going to work, then I'd go back to my business." But there's no indication he's going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
And if other candidates spoke as openly and frequently with the media as Trump does, we’d have a better campaign.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.