I’m accumulating a growing list of “lessons learned” from the Donald Trump campaign, and here’s one sure to make the top ten: The mainstream media still matters.
Some history is in order: The notion that you couldn’t declare war on the press was first made clear in the wake of Richard Nixon’s ignominious exodus from office in the wake of Watergate. An obvious double standard existed (see the sins of LBJ and JFK), but alienating the media would have been tantamount to suicide.
In this milieu, an alternative lesson emerged that said a shrewd, conservative communicator (see Ronald Reagan) could overcome this liberal media bias—and beat them at their own game.
Republicans successfully employed this lesson (which required running smart and sophisticated campaigns) and had a decent run. Reagan won three terms (counting George H.W. Bush’s term), and George W. Bush won two terms (with the unfortunate caveat that he lost the popular vote in 2000).
But all of that occurred before Barack Obama won two consecutive terms—before the proliferation of 24/7 cable news, blogging, and Twitter. And so, a new hypothesis emerged: if Republicans can’t win this game, they should invent a new one. After all, the media would destroy “nice” candidates like Mitt Romney no matter how thoughtful or irenic they appeared. Maybe (the GOP thought) we could invent our own new game and live by our own rules.
This, of course, brings us to Donald Trump.
— TIMEPolitics (@TIMEPolitics) October 13, 2016
The bet on Trump was that the world had changed—that he was strong enough and tough enough to battle the media and change the game.
This faith in Trump was either brilliant or delusional (the lines are often blurry), and, for a while, it seemed to work. In the end, though, the mainstream media will have the last laugh.
That’s not to say that Trump doesn’t deserve the media’s scorn; NBC News didn’t make Donald Trump say the things he said on tape. But, as I recently noted on CNN’s Reliable Sources (regardless of their true motives), it’s a fact that the media aggrandized Trump during the Republican primary. And they are now in a cutthroat race to tear him down—with just a month to go before Election Day.
Even Trump’s supporters seem to accept this as the new normal. It’s telling that Ann Coulter’s latest column is largely a lamentation on how the media is about to take down her candidate.
This predictable denouement is not the sole reason I opposed Donald Trump. It is, however, a legitimate one. Life is about the tension between creative and prudent thinkers. Just as there is a fine line between outside-the-box thinking and delusion, there is also a fine line between healthy prudence and the trap of conventional wisdom.
The same people who thought Donald Trump couldn’t win the Republican nomination were probably right about why he shouldn’t have.