Politics & Policy

Will Donald Trump Follow Barack Obama’s Path to the White House?

Trump works the crowd in San Pedro, Calif., September 15, 2015. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)
Cruz and Rubio are running as mere politicians; Trump’s running as a phenomenon.

Do you remember 2008 and the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when it felt like the entire country had gone mad, viewing an unaccomplished first-term senator as a national messiah? His face stared out at you from seemingly every magazine cover — and not just the political journals or newsweeklies, but health magazines, glossy fashion digests, and technology reviews.

Obama wasn’t a mere senator running to be commander-in-chief; he was a cultural figure popping up everywhere in American life: late-night television, ESPN, music lyrics, Hollywood. (His exhausting, ubiquitous media presence continues to this day.)

The Obama-mania went well beyond the usual media bias or partisanship; it was an unprecedented national cult of personality. A July 2008 column by Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested, with no detectable sarcasm, Obama was a “Lightworker,” described as “that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health-care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet.” Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. said that “what Barack Obama has accomplished is the single most extraordinary event that has occurred in the 232 years of the nation’s political history. . . .  The event itself is so extraordinary that another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance.” Celebrities even taped videos pledging allegiance to him.

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It felt like mass hysteria; those of us who doubted the junior senator’s ability to bring about Nirvana felt like strangers in our own country. It felt a bit like “gaslighting,” a constant barrage of misinformation to make us feel like we were losing our sanity. Almost as one, America’s elites insisted our national salvation would be found in this . . .  celebrity.

Did our country learn from that mass hysteria? Has the disappointment of Obama’s presidency spurred some soul-searching or reexamination among our elites about their shallow criteria for leadership? Did the media realize the consequences of reducing a presidential election to obsessive coverage of one particular figure? Did Americans learn to recoil from the warping effect of blurring the lines between the race for president and the realm of pop-culture celebrities?

Apparently not.

Donald Trump’s ability to emulate Obama’s 2008 full-spectrum media domination is a great omen for his presidential ambitions. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and the rest are running as mere politicians; Trump is running as an unstoppable cultural phenomenon. Sure, a lot of the coverage of him is negative, but that’s almost beside the point. Trump isn’t just dominating the debate; he is the debate. Each morning, he wakes up, calls into whatever morning show he feels like, and effectively decides what the news cycle is going to be about.

And almost the entire media complex happily goes along for the ride, enjoying the controversy and the ratings, and calculating — quite possibly erroneously — that elevating Trump will ultimately benefit the Democratic nominee.

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Most of the news programs allow Trump to literally phone it in, enabling him to appear on four or five programs a day. The creative team of Saturday Night Live chose Trump — a declared presidential candidate — to host the late-night comedy program, despite the obvious problems it presented for NBC under the Equal Time regulations. Cable-news networks cover his speeches live. He pops up on Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. Talk radio debates his every remark, because when Trump’s not talking, he’s the subject of the discussion — squeezing everyone else out of the conversation; a Media Research Center study finds that, over a two-week period, coverage of Trump’s campaign took up nearly 78 percent of all of CNN’s prime-time GOP campaign coverage.

#share#Which raises the question: Was the power of the Obama coverage of 2008 the relentless insistence that Obama was a miraculous, unimaginably competent and cool, troubleshooting figure? Or was it simply that the scale and range of the happy-talk reached even the most casual, low-information, tuned-out voters — convincing them that Obama was the good or cool one?

If Trump is this repugnant, nasty racist, so undeserving of public office . . . why is he hosting Saturday Night Live and joking around with Fallon and Colbert?

If Trump wins the nomination, we’re likely to see the national media turn on a dime and start talking about him in the harshest of tones: He’s a racist, he’s a demagogue, he’s a maniac, he’s uninformed. Except . . .  all of these powerful voices have already established Trump as a ubiquitous, delightfully unpredictable, fearless figure who can’t be ignored. If Trump is this repugnant, nasty racist, so undeserving of public office . . .  why is he hosting Saturday Night Live and joking around with Fallon and Colbert? If he’s so self-evidently unsuited for the presidency . . . why has the national media spent a full year dissecting his every move? If he’s such a vulgar embodiment of reality-television narcissism, why the soft-focus profiles of his lovely family? If his economic plans are so wildly unrealistic and reckless, why has the business media written those glowing profiles about his keen mind and eye for opportunities?

The media that so thoroughly built up Trump as a contrast to his boring, predictable, consistently conservative GOP rivals might not find him so easy to tear down.

Sure, the media will try to insist that Trump is an angry voice — and as seen in the most recent debate, Trump wears the “angry” label proudly. He matches the national mood better than Hillary Clinton does (she is the inauthentic epitome of Washington power, who offers the status quo but with more fundraising scandals). Trump’s stream-of-consciousness half-sentences are usually about topics that genuinely annoy the public: an insecure border, political correctness, an administration that seems to only halfheartedly want to fight ISIS, and the insane Clintonian hypocrisy on the issue of how women ought to be treated.

#related#Sure, Hillary Clinton currently leads the head-to-head matchups (is it still a safe bet to presume she’ll be the Democratic nominee?) but a Trump victory over her isn’t that hard to picture. Imagine a San Bernardino–style attack, or several of them, in the months before Election Day. Will Americans want four years of Secretary Blame-the-Video or Mr. Bomb-the-S***-Out-of-Them? If the economy tumbles again, will Americans turn to Hillary? If she’s stumbling against Bernie Sanders, how certain should anyone be that she wouldn’t wither against Trump’s relentless barrage?

A lot of good Republicans entered the 2016 presidential race; most of them never got much of a chance to make their pitch. Undoubtedly, some of that is their fault, but a portion of this is on the shoulders of the national media that decided Trump warranted the wall-to-wall coverage that Obama received in 2008. There’s got to be a better way to pick a nominee and a president than being washed away in a wave of media hype, with the citizenry ending up backing whoever gets the most coverage. Alas, this election cycle doesn’t look fixable.

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