In my year-plus working for Village Voice, the New York-based alternative weekly, there were painfully slow news days, or days when the news cycle wasn’t directly tied to the city. And on those quietest and most desperate of days, when blog posts still needed to get written, I did what I had to do. I visited Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
Trump, as the nation has quickly learned in these past months, is always good to say something outrageous. In more innocent times, that trait was great for a quick-hit post. When Nelson Mandela died, a deeply important world event that was not New York-centric, we could write about Trump’s dubious claim they were best buds. When Trump hinted in a tweet that he was going to run for president in 2013, or all those times he said he would run for mayor: hahaha, ridiculous, what a fucking orange clown, publish.
These days, though, we in the media find ourselves in a disquieting position. We have to write about Donald Trump, who is a deeply stupid person: a crude, nasty, bloviating man always willing to shout himself hoarse about terrorist Muslims, rapist Mexicans, probably-menstruating Fox hosts—anything for five seconds more of attention. It’s obvious that he hasn’t given a single thing he says more than five seconds of thought, that his brain is an arid wasteland punctuated by moats of nacho cheese.
And yet: he’s still a frontrunner in the GOP race, long after he shouldn’t be, and he continues, insistently, to make news. (“‘This Will Be the End of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man for the Seventh Time this Year,” as the painfully apt Onion headline goes.) Being obligated to write about him—once a fun diversion from actual news—is like being force-fed a metric ton of candy until our teeth liquify and run out of our heads in a rotten stream.
The news-making pattern has become clear: Trump says something awful, the media questions it, and he doubles down, turning whatever he pulled out of his ass into an actual plank in his campaign platform. We saw this cycle with his idea to create a registry of Muslim Americans, which was first posed as a question by a reporter; a mere day later, it was “absolutely” something he was planning on doing. That’s how fast it happens. And because Trump’s greatest fear appears to be that of looking “weak,” he’ll never change his mind.
What’s worse: his idiotic knee-jerk rhetoric is still, more or less, working. In some Iowa polls he’s dipping below equally dangerous bigot Ted Cruz, while in others the two are neck-and-neck. No matter how much hand-wringing the media does, no matter how many times we point out what a dick he is, what a liar, it does no good. Like a trash monster that feeds on sewage, it only makes him stronger. In one recent poll, 68 percent of likely Trump voters said they would vote for him if he ran as an independent.
And that, roughly, is where the “Ignore Donald Trump” brigade comes in. Those are the people insisting that the only way to cover Trump is to not do so at all, to ignore him until he goes away.
“Stop paying attention to this buffoon,” a friend of a friend wrote recently on Facebook. And from a reporter of my acquaintance: “Can we just ignore him or something? Give him the silent treatment?” Other people are loudly declaring they won’t click on any more stories about Trump, that it’s time to focus on the “real issues.” In other words: All it’ll take for Trump to lose is for us to all shut our eyes and pretend he’s not there.
But we don’t get to ignore Trump. We can’t, for the same reasons, on a sliding scale of severity, that we can’t ignore the Westboro Baptist Church or ISIS or other threats to the common good that nonetheless benefit from media attention. The “just ignore him” tactic is short-sighted, it doesn’t work, and it presumes that if Americans simply pretend not to notice something, it goes away.
It’s strange to think of political ideas like unpopular brands of toothpaste: don’t buy it, and nobody else will, either. Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, made that point elegantly not long ago:
A lot of people, a lot of liberals, or what we might better call people of cosmopolitan political sensibilities, live in this fantasy world wherein what they ignore either doesn’t exist or will be shooed out of existence by their refusal to pay attention to it. This is, needless to say, not true. That’s why many Democrats are continually surprised that things they think are straightforward or commonsensical turn out to be deeply controversial or even politically impossible.
And in a column this week, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi further explained the folly in choosing to ignore something just because it’s bad:
What got us into this mess was the impulse to change the channel the moment we feel uncomfortable. Even if we take the man off the air, the problem he represents is still going to be there, just like poverty, corruption, mass incarceration, pollution and all of the other things we keep off the airwaves.
At any rate, news outlets who high-mindedly pretended like they weren’t paying attention to Trump, or not taking him seriously, are now having to reconsider. The Washington Post, for one, who wrote in an editorial recently that while they didn’t want to give him the “satisfaction” of covering him, they now feel obligated, and, what’s more, other Republicans should feel that obligation too: “The only way to beat a bully is to stand up to him.”
Or the Huffington Post, who declared this summer they’d slot Trump under “entertainment” news and are, as Arianna Huffington wrote, having to reconsider. Trump’s campaign, she wrote, has “morphed into something else: an ugly and dangerous force in American politics. So we will no longer be covering his campaign in Entertainment.”
Respectfully: No shit, Arianna. We have to recognize, and talk about, and analyze, and truly face the fact that Trump’s campaign is succeeding not in spite of his noxious ideas, but purely because of them. Trump is tapping into a deep and sincere well of hatred that exists on the right, a strain of actual fascism and unreconstructed xenophobia. It runs not all that far under the surface of American public life, and to pretend like it’s not there is dangerously blind.
That’s not to say that we can’t recognize Donald Trump as a clown, a person without real ideas, who’s playing for media attention and will somehow, through his dark arts, parlay this presidential run into more money, more fame, gold-plated toilets, whatever it is that makes people like Donald Trump happy. We can be aware that he’s playing us, the media, and that he wrote in The Art of the Deal way back in 1987 how it’s done: “The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you,” he wrote, bragging that the press has “always” wanted to cover him.
Trump’s media strategy might be sleight of hand, more or less. But his ideas are reflective of a real and deeply shitty thread in American politics. As Vox noted, his Islamophobia is particularly popular with Republicans, and his fellow Republican candidates have said things that aren’t all that far off, before they turned on a dime this week and started denouncing Trump. As we speak, Ted Cruz is busily making sure states can “opt out” of accepting Syrian refugees. In November, Marco Rubio advocated for shutting down not just mosques, but any place where “radicals” might be “inspired.” Ben Carson doesn’t think the president can or should be a Muslim. And Carly Fiorina, who is by no stretch of the imagination a moderate, has been roundly criticized on the right for months for doing things like saying, mildly, well actually, they can.
The main effect Trump has is to make all these people look sane by comparison. He taps into the darkest feelings of angry, disaffected white people, and when he eventually fucks off back to Apprentice-land, his opponents will be waiting to take up the same promises he’s made, couched in smarter and moderately less insane rhetoric.
Sigh and roll your eyes over the media’s coverage of Trump all you want. Make fun of him, ignore him, photoshop his hair onto Thanksgiving turkeys: it doesn’t really matter. Just know that it’s too late for us to treat him like a joke.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.