First things first: Donald Trump is a vitriol-spewing, media-manipulating, self-aggrandizing, bigoted publicity hound who has no realistic chance of winning the Republican nomination next summer or any other. While a growing number of national polls currently have the once-and-future reality television star atop a historically crowded GOP field, Trump’s candidacy is destined to fade away just as countless other novelty candidates have in primaries past.
None of that, however, is any reason for the media not to seriously cover Trump’s campaign today. The Donald may be a Twitter troll in a $5,000 Brioni suit, but he’s also the avatar of choice for a significant subset of the American electorate who sees themselves in his particular brand of belligerence. That view and those voters won’t disappear when Trump does. The press ignores that fact at its own peril—and at the public’s own loss.
On Friday, the Huffington Post announced that from this point forth it will relegate its coverage of all things Trump to its entertainment section. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait,” editorial director Danny Shea and Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim wrote in a note to readers of one of the largest news outlets in the nation. “If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
The Huffington Post so far stands alone in officially declaring itself above Trump as a news story, but it’s clear there are plenty of working journalists who would be happy if their bosses made a similar decision. Politico’s Ben White, to pick but one example, made his feelings known Thursday. “Trump’s time in the lead will fade as the debates begin and the Republican Party starts to get serious,” White argued. “And then all this coverage of the big-mouth billionaire will be exposed as largely ridiculous.” (As someone who is paid to write about the campaign every day, I’ve been guilty of my own type of Trump dismissal; I began much of my early coverage of Trump’s campaign with the word Ugh, a knowing wink meant to make it clear that I, too, would prefer to be writing about more traditional candidates.)
Such arguments against spilling digital ink on Trump are built on the idea that he can’t win the nomination. That premise is correct, but the conclusion that follows—The media shouldn’t waste its resources covering him—is false. For evidence, we have to look no further than those very same candidates that Trump dismissers rightly point to as proof that his time leading the GOP field will be short lived: Herman Cain and Sarah Palin.
Both Cain and Palin spent time at or near the top of national polls four years ago but flamed out soon after. Does the fact that the pair ended up with zero primary or caucus victories between them mean the media should have ignored them from the get-go? Hardly. Their rise was an important story line in the 2012 election. They provided clear evidence of conservative skepticism of Mitt Romney, while also reminding the GOP establishment that primary voters crave simplicity in message. For Cain, reforming the U.S. tax code was as simple as “9-9-9”; for Palin, addressing the nation’s energy needs was as simple as “Drill, baby, drill.” Four years later, Trump has surged past the establishment favorites by adding his own simplistic policy plank to the conservative platform: the promise of solving our immigration problems by building a fence along the Mexican border that we won’t even have to pay for.
Cain, meanwhile, is a particularly helpful example of why these flash-in-the-pan candidates require immediate coverage. It was the increased scrutiny that the press provided that ultimately spelled his downfall. (The same could be said for Palin’s disastrous vice presidential run in 2008.) Without that all-in coverage, voters would have never known that Cain was unable to answer basic foreign policy questions or that he faced a series of troubling sexual harassment allegations. It was only by treating the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO as a legitimate candidate that the press was able to prove that he wasn’t one.
Similar vetting of Trump has yet to erode his support, but without it his faulty and xenophobic claims about immigrants would have gone unrefuted, and his hypocritical business dealings would have remained unrevealed. Yes, the deluge of free press is responsible for some of Trump’s rise, but in the long run it will also be what is responsible for his demise. Meanwhile, intentionally ignoring Trump—who had the support to qualify for the Fox News debate even before the current media storm—would risk having the opposite of the intended effect: A lack of serious scrutiny from the mainstream media wouldn’t cut short Trump’s ongoing infomercial—it would prolong it.
If the media took as its mission the task of only covering candidates who have a realistic shot at winning their party’s nomination, then countless more legitimate candidates would also need to be ignored as well. Sorry, Ted Cruz. See you later, John Kasich. This if-they-can’t-win-we’re-not-covering-them logic doesn’t seem to have been applied to conservative candidates in the past either and for good reason. Ron Paul was never going to win the GOP nomination in 2008, yet his campaign was one of the first clear signs of the emerging strength of the libertarian wing of his party.
Likewise, a similar dynamic is playing out this year on the opposite end of the spectrum: first with Elizabeth Warren and now with Bernie Sanders. The former was adamant she was never going to run for the Democratic nomination, and the latter has almost no shot of defeating Hillary Clinton in the primary. Yet what they do and say on the stump clearly matters for the future of the Democratic Party.
The press might not like it, but Trump, too, is already shaping the 2016 election. He’s now a lock to crash the first Republican presidential debate, where he’ll force establishment favorites like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio outside of their comfort zones on immigration. Both men can still play the grown-up card, but how they choose to interact with Trump will help decide whether they ultimately win over the immigration hardliners in their own party and if they’re even willing to try.
Trump’s current surge also raises interesting questions about what it is the GOP base wants the face of its party to look like; his popular retrograde rhetoric is a counterpoint to the argument that voters want Republicans to rediscover their compassionate sides. And in the longer term, his rise embodies the larger challenge facing the Republican Party: Will it evolve in the face of inescapable demographic trends? Or will it continue to ignore them? It stands to reason that those questions are ones that campaign journalists would be interested in.
None of that is to say all Trump coverage is good Trump coverage. When TV reporter after TV reporter after TV reporter asks Trump whether he wants to apologize for branding Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, they’re not hoping he backs down, and they aren’t setting him up for a fact-based challenge either. They’re simply hoping he says something even more jaw-dropping, handing them a viral video clip in the process. Of course the media fails when it goes chasing clicks only for the sake of clicks. But we can’t fix a series of smaller journalistic errors by committing a larger one.