In the runup to the 1960 presidential election, Norman Mailer penned this observation in Esquire magazine: “America’s politics would now be also America’s favorite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s best seller.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and is it any wonder that today’s presidential politics have become America’s favorite reality show? Maybe not. Maybe we should have expected a 2016 campaign that was celebrity-driven, alternately silly and startling. Maybe we should have expected something along the lines of the Rise of Trump.
Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the presidential race that comes to Pennsylvania on April 26 has been downright disturbing. But maybe that says as much about American society as anything else. Trump has defined this race, and at the same time revealed our country’s dark side.
It’s a side of us that likes drama, a side that likes to keep it simple. Simple solutions — blame others, build a wall, ban Muslims. Simple slogans — “Make America great again.”
It’s a side of us that’s still struggling with matters of race and ethnicity, a side that doesn’t like to be bothered with facts. So what if Trump University’s ratings from the Better Business Bureau ranged from A to D-minus? There was an A in there somewhere, right?
It’s a side of us that might turn violent at any moment, and elbow you in the face.
America hasn’t seen a presidential campaign this troubling since 1972, when segregationist candidate George Wallace was shot and crippled in an assassination attempt, and Richard Nixon’s troops waged covert dirty tricks against the Democrats. This year’s is uglier.
“America has been trending stupid for a long time,” Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone last August. “Now the stupid wants out of its cage, and Trump is urging it on.”
If all of these observations seem depressing — and they are — there is reason for optimism about the state of our union. Thankfully, a majority of us are not Trumpmaniacs. General election polls show Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders stomping Trump in November. Trump hasn’t even secured a majority of Republican voters; he’s mostly won pluralities in crowded primaries.
Hopefully, Trump’s antics and ignorance are finally catching up with him. After the scuffles at his rallies, the battery charge filed against his campaign manager, and the vile photo he tweeted of Ted Cruz’s wife, Trump lost the pivotal Wisconsin primary to Cruz by a double-digit margin. Regardless of what happens in his home state of New York in itsprimary on Tuesday, the prospect of a contested convention now seems very real.
But enough Americans have already cast a vote for Trump to bring us to the point where Trump is still the GOP delegate leader and we must take a good hard look at our dark side. So there has been an increasing amount of hand-wringing and self-reflection by our so-called establishments. Rightly so.
Republican big-wigs have been wondering how the Grand Old Party stumbled into this mess and how they might wiggle out of it at their summer convention in Cleveland. Media types have been reassessing their role, wondering if ratings-driven coverage of Trump aided his rise.
As for the GOP, its convention should be wide open if Trump doesn’t get the necessary 1,237 delegates to claim the nomination at the outset. Remember what a national convention is really about — not scripted television, as we’ve come to believe in the past few decades — but choosing the party’s best presidential candidate.
News coverage of Trump, particularly on cable television, certainly could have been better from the outset, and recently it has been. In late March, CNN’s Anderson Cooper finally offered a noteworthy follow-up to Trump. When Trump replied to a question about the Heidi Cruz photo by saying her husband started it, Cooper told Trump he sounded like a 5-year-old.
Earlier, though, CNN and many other outlets often went soft on Trump, eager for the ratings boost he might deliver. In an early March interview on CNN, Cooper focused on horse-race questions after this weak opener: “Huge night last night.” Slate writer Isaac Chotiner opined, “Trump is, of course, a media star who has been thrown softball after softball throughout the campaign, but his interviews on CNN, with everyone from Don Lemon to Wolf Blitzer, have been particularly embarrassing.”
So it’s not the amount of news coverage that Trump has received that should concern us, but how he’s been covered. The amount of coverage is defensible. After all, if our dark side is taking over, we should know how and why.
Richard Fellinger is an award-winning short-story writer and former journalist who teaches at Elizabethtown College.