Labor Day marks the beginning of the real political season. Gluttons for punishment, we ignore the billions of dollars candidates have already spent imprinting their brands on our forehead and act like now we’re going to take this presidential race seriously.
But ignoring what has gone before is going to be hard to do this year. Donald Trump has commandeered the presidential stage, and his provocative personality has spread across the cable news channels so pervasively his hat should read “Make America My Next TV Show.”
Fox News has become the Trump network behind the fawning attention of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. CNN has turned its newsroom into a game show studio where campaign shills sit on panels side by side with otherwise distinguished political commentators spewing out inane defenses of their candidate (that the moderator often has to correct). And MSNBC has turned over its 5 PM news hour every night to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann for a kind of Beat-The-Clock rendition of the day’s campaign news – which is then re-packaged into a weekly Showtime series called, appropriately enough, “The Circus” and subtitled “Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth.”
The polls are the overnight ratings of this election, in no small part because Trump treats them that way. And no one pays much attention to which polls. In this election cycle, anyone with $1,200 can randomly robocall 900 people. So every day, you have new numbers from Quinnipiac, Monmouth, Pew, Gallup, Rasmussen, YouGov, Marist, Reuters, Ipsos, Gravis, Suffolk, and a dozen others providing grist for the mill.
And viewers eat it up, tracking Trump’s poll numbers like they are box scores on the sports page, and citing the even more suspect cross-tab breakdowns to show how the candidates are doing with Millennials, Hispanics, men, women, whites with college degrees, and whites with a toothpick stuck in their craw.
All About Process
What distinguishes the vast majority of political coverage this year is the utter lack of any substantive discussion of issues. It’s all about process: who’s up in the polls, who’s down, who’s buying ads in the swing states, who committed the most gaffes on the campaign trail – guess who wins this one? – and which candidate do we trust the least?
Over the course of the campaign, the Associated Press calculated that Trump has insulted or disparaged some 31 different people, racial groups, religions, and fellow candidates. Last Thursday, reading off a teleprompter at a rally in Charlotte, he said he “regretted” some of the words he has used in the past that “might have caused personal pain.”
“Precisely which words does Mr. Trump regret? He did not specify,” Maggie Haberman wrote in The New York Times. If any reporter got a follow-up answer, I didn’t see it. Instead, Haberman skipped right along to report Twitter users were “gobsmacked” that Trump had acknowledged doing anything wrong, and the comment was folded into a next day story on the bad week Trump had, culminating in the demotion of Paul Manafort as campaign manager and rising influence of his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway.
It’s now common for the media to refer to Trump’s campaign trail asides as “unforced errors” – like we are watching some kind of baseball game here. Trump changes campaign managers as often as Robin Ventura changes pitchers. A bad week on the campaign trail is called a slump.The play-by-play announcers count down the days until the game is over, and we stay glued to our seats like we are watching a pennant race.
How closely are we watching? Facebook reports that 100 million Americans have commented on the presidential race this year, generating 4 billion posts, likes and shares, according to Politico. But the sad truth is our social networks are even more segregated than the mainstream media.
Just as our country divides into red states and blue states, Fox News and MSNBC watchers, our social networks divide into ideological clusters that only talk to themselves. We like the things we agree with, and rarely see the things we don’t. According to a Pew Research Center report earlier this month, nearly half of the Clinton supporters and a third of Trump backers have no close friends backing the other candidate.
Bret Stephens, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page, laments that the Republican Party has become “an echo chamber” that is “increasingly divorced from reality.” Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio host in Wisconsin who has feuded with Trump since the Wisconsin primary, says the problem is, “We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees.” We’re not talking to each other, we’re yelling at each other, but those on the other side of the gulf aren’t listening.
No Common Ground
In the absence of common ground, the potential for misunderstanding is great. The Trump trope is that bad trade deals have drained American manufacturing jobs, our porous borders let in dangerous immigrants, power hungry bureaucrats are out to take away our guns, and Washington, in all its multi-faceted ways, is rigged to screw the little guy.
Some voters obviously respond to these dog whistles, but that doesn’t explain Trump’s 40 percent standing in the polls.
The prototypical Trump voter has not been disproportionately affected by loss of his job to globalization or competition from immigrants, according to a recent Gallup survey. Rather, he is motivated in this election by a more general, and widespread sense that their American way of life is disappearing.
The Gallup study, drawn from in-depth interviews with more than 70,000 voters, identifies the characteristics most often associated with a Trump voter as: white, male, over 40, Christian (but not Mormon), not gay, and holding no college degree. Trump did indeed do well in the primaries in some heavily industrial, blue-collar urban neighborhoods. But the bulk of his supporters seem to live in predominantly white rural or suburban areas – where Mexican and Arab immigrants are few and far between.
The Pew Research Center probed deeper into their attitudes and came up with this fact: 81 percent of Trump voters believe life in America was better 50 years ago, and 68 percent fear that their children will fare worse in the future.
My wife’s brother lives in a small town in western Illinois in the heart of Trump Country. It has always been Republican territory, but the pride and optimism that used to connote are gone. Freeport, Illinois, today is what sociologists call a “low mobility” community.
The Kelly-Springfield Tire plant and Newell Rubbermaid, once the two largest employers, are a shadow of what they used to be. The villain behind their demise isn’t globalization, but conglomeration. Automation, not immigration, has reduced the number of workers needed on the factory floor; and far off corporate headquarters are consolidating the work in fewer locations.
There are still some small family-run businesses in Freeport, but fewer every year. Walmart and Target have moved in, and the small merchants along main street are feeling the effects. An aging population keeps the health care sector busy. The schools are good, but not great. (Every year it’s a struggle to pay the teachers.)
If you get a chance to pick up on the local scuttlebutt, it too often involves a meth lab discovered on the outskirts of town, or a friend who attempted suicide, or a high school buddy who wrapped his car around a tree after a night of too much drinking.
“We’re just moving along, same old, same old,” my brother-in-law told me this summer on vacation, “except worse.”
He’s not a Trump voter – yet. He thinks Donald Trump is crazy, but he still might vote for him. It won’t be a vote of confidence in Trump’s ability to solve Freeport’s problems. It’ll be a vote of no-confidence in Hillary Clinton’s ability to understand them.
Liberals seem to have a tin ear when it comes to understanding how economic and social issues play out in small towns across America. But conservatives are equally deaf to the difficult interplay of race, poverty, schools and crime in the inner city.
There’s no clearer sign of this than Donald Trump’s ludicrous suggestion the other day the violence in Chicago’s inner city could be cleared up in a week if only we allowed “tougher” police tactics. If this is part of his new outreach to black voters – “What do you have to lose?” – he’s got a lot to learn about African-Americans, cities, and policing.
The anxiety that roils under the surface of this campaign is fueled by low mobility in both the inner cities and rural areas. But the root causes are very different, and neither will be addressed until the candidates start talking about them as public policy issues.
Can We Talk?
As the Trump and Clinton teams reboot for the post-Labor Day sprint to the finish line, we should be talking about the economy, foreign policy, business regulation, health care, the environment, a growing array of social problems, and the high cost of solving them.
Instead, we are mired in yet another debate over Hillary’s emails and Donald Trump’s, ahem, “temperament.” But when this election comes to an end in November, the hard task will be forging compromises in Congress between Republicans and Democrats that meet the challenges ahead.
The point of an election is to illuminate those challenges, and the candidates are supposed to present their solutions. The media is supposed to facilitate the discussion with tough questions (that the candidates are supposed to answer). And the voters ultimately decide what direction they want the country to go.
None of that has occurred this year.
And that’s a shame. So how about we all close our Twitter accounts and start talking to each other. What kind of America do you want? And how are we going to get there together?