Despite Trump’s unprecedented vilification, it is unclear another Republican president would be treated differently. History hardly shows Republicans — either holding or seeking the White House — have received favorable mainstream media treatment. And this looks unlikely to change. Any Republican currently winning the presidency must likely follow some of the same course Trump took and mainstream media despise.
Donald Trump is receiving the harshest mainstream media treatment of any president since Richard Nixon – despite lacking the criminal evidence. However, taking a favorite liberal cliché’: Are we blaming the victim for his persecutors’ prejudice?
Would another Republican in the White House today fare any better with mainstream media? History argues “no.” Mainstream media have not accorded recent Republican presidents or nominees the favorable treatment given Democrats – or even fair treatment.
George H. W. Bush was continually slandered with the “wimp factor,” despite being a WWII combat veteran. Mainstream media gave him no credit for raising taxes to lower the deficit – despite supporting such policies. And his orchestration of Kuwait’s liberation – the most successful U.S. foreign policy and military effort in decades – was quickly ignored.
George W. Bush was treated similarly. In his attempts at “compassionate conservatism,” mainstream media inevitably focused on the latter and ignored the former. His Medicare expansion, adding a prescription drug benefit – which would have been lauded from a Democratic president – was immediately dismissed as overdue. Instead, mainstream media seized on his attempt to reform an unsustainable Social Security system.
Nor have Republican aspirants to the White House fared better. Dole, McCain, and Romney all stepped to the presidential plate with two mainstream media strikes already on them. Contrastingly, Clinton and Obama were awarded first base and treated like they had hit their way there.
Final proof comes from 2016’s Republican field and asking who mainstream media would have treated better had they won. Based on coverage before Trump was deemed a credible contender: None. They would have been attacked for different things, but still attacked.
Mainstream media routinely opposes Republicans – in the White House or Congress – as viciously as prevailing discourse allows. Undoubtedly, some of Trump’s extremely negative coverage is due to “vituperation inflation.” Any Republican president was going to feel the effect of the eight-year catch-up following Obama’s time in office.
Mainstream media is not fickle. They are just biased. And this bias underscores why Trump’s treatment, or any future Republican presidential nominee’s, will not change. It also highlights why current Republicans will have to duplicate at least some of Trump’s tactics to win.
Mainstream media is at worst responsible for, and at least complicit in, the coarsening of America’s public discourse. At the forefront of this has been the “personalization” of every issue. The goal is to connect with the audience as viscerally as possible.
In politics this translates as populism. Absent following the prevailing media trend, Trump’s flipping blue states would have been impossible. Republicans following Trump will need to do likewise. Such mastery of their medium – something mainstream media intends as a bequest solely to the left – will never be received kindly.
Because mainstream media is biased against Republicans and further incensed by Republican populist appeals, finding a way around them is a necessity. Trump won in part by successfully circumventing mainstream media.
Future Republicans will confront Trump’s resulting dilemma: Face a decided disadvantage in attempting to campaign through mainstream media or their wrath in going around them. Successful ones, like Trump, currently must do the latter, but can expect to pay Trump’s price for it.
How Trump did it was even more injurious to mainstream media than his circumvention. The revolution in personal communication has devastated America’s mainstream media. Applying it to politics, Trump further marginalized them. Such marginalization breaks more than mainstream media’s monopoly on political conversation; it eliminates their ability to define content orthodoxy too. Again, future Republicans can expect to pay Trump’s price for it.
Finally, mainstream media are not biased against Republicans based on form, but primarily on substance. They lean left and therefore oppose Republican policies that lean right. However future Republicans will no more abandon policies of their larger conservative base, than Democrats will jettison those of their smaller liberal one. Once more, this guarantees conflict with mainstream media.
Unquestionably Trump has given mainstream media unnecessary openings for attack. Yet how many of these represent legitimate policy failures or simply points for leverage in a broader de-legitimization effort? The real question remains: Would another Republican president have received substantially different treatment at mainstream media hands?
One can ask whether another Republican in the White House would have approached the mainstream media better than Trump. Yet the answer is moot, since no one running in 2016 came close to winning the nomination. It is entirely different to ask how mainstream media has, would have, or will respond. History, and the current dynamics facing a Republican running for the presidency, argue that mainstream media’s treatment would likely differ little from Trump’s.
The author served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.