EXCLUSIVE: From the day Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, the consensus was nearly universal: Political commentators on the right and the left — many of the smartest, most highly paid and influential journalists in the business — stated with their usual certainty that Donald Trump would never be a serious contender for the nation’s top office. Jon Stewart drew laughs from his Daily Show audience by thanking the Deity that Trump was around to provide levity for the coming, endless race. Most of his colleagues across the political spectrum followed suit, making Trump the butt of jokes, a political punchline that soon enough, you may rest assured, would be tossed on the trash-heap of political history.
Until suddenly, there was Trump — like Gaston in Beauty And The Beast — knocking at the door in the middle of the night leading a red-faced mob bearing pitchforks and torches. How’d that happen?
“At the very beginning of this, I recall one of my colleagues, Mark Singer — who I think wrote the best profile of Trump — called me,” New Yorker magazine editor in chief David Remnick told Deadline. “And I think he was being more than just a little serious when he said ‘Can we please ignore him? This is such an absurd process. He’s not just a joke, and heavy coverage is just going to help him.’ I appreciated the point. But journalism can’t afford to do that, and shouldn’t do that, any more than they could ignore Huey Long.”
Early on, Remnick put his magazine — and frequently his own byline — behind an exhaustive pursuit of the Trump phenomenon. He concedes, however, that at least in the beginning, none of the celebrated prognosticators were taking Trump seriously. “I think everybody was guilty of that,” Remnick observed. “Nobody said a year ago that Trump could win. This was a near universal, and to my mortification I got whipped on Politico,” for his place among the, well let’s call them the disbelievers.
Remnick was hardly alone among the liberal intelligentsia. Significantly, the same could be said of his counterparts on the right.
“So many conservative pundits were wrong because we assumed Trump would crash and burn,” says Jon Podhoretz, the editor of the conservative-leaning magazine Commentary and a columnist for the New York Post. “In part because the Republican field was so strong, the opportunity was so great. And when
“So many conservative pundits were wrong because we assumed Trump would crash and burn,” says Jon Podhoretz. “In part because the Republican field was so strong…and when it comes down to making choices, Republicans tended to favor the most electable, sensible candidate closest to the ideological framework. That has been the case practically forever.”
it comes down to making choices, Republicans tended to favor the most electable, sensible candidate closest to the ideological framework. That has been the case practically forever. The conservatives who lined up with Trump — Sean Hannity, Laura Ingram, the people on Fox — saw in him almost the apotheosis of the populist, Washington-hating guy who could get an audience.”
Fox News star and author Bill O’Reilly agrees that Trump’s rise shocked — and continues to shock — people who ought to have known better. “We haven’t seen anything like this before in America,” O’Reilly told Deadline. “When I first interviewed Trump, when he announced in June, I didn’t underestimate him because he has money, and charisma, and drive. I’ve known him a long time. But I didn’t think he would overwhelm the field. I thought he would be competitive, but not overwhelm the field. When you look back, Trump caught this wave of anger, and everyone else missed it. That’s what propelled him. And he was able to build on his initial success because of the anger component.
“So many Republicans are so angry with the federal government, they’re looking for someone to wreck it,” O’Reilly continued. “The mainstream media never understand folks. They don’t live in that world. They don’t know anyone in that world. They don’t go to Waffle House.”
Wherever the columnists take their morning croissants and lattes, they were a long time coming to the realization that Trump not only isn’t going away, but that he was surfing what O’Reilly and others now agree is a tsunami of anti-Beltway anger in the electorate. Nearly a year into the campaign, the pundits have taken to an unseemly exhibition of self-flagellation, perfectly captured in today’s New York Times piece by conservative Op-Ed columnist David Brooks. Under the headline “No, Not Trump, Not Ever,” Brooks writes:
“[M]any in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country…Donald Trump is epically unprepared to be president. “
Asked whether the press shares any culpability for Trump’s success, however, and again there’s consensus from the left and the right ends of the political spectrum: Blame cable news.
“I do have a problem with the wall-to-wall coverage on cable,” Remnick says. “I understand why they do it, it’s great for ratings and with Fox and CNN it’s understandable. And I don’t think there’s been a lack of rigorous coverage — but it’s been in the New York Times and The New Yorker — and not everyone necessarily sees that.”
Nonsense, O’Reilly retorts. “I have to cover what’s happening in the country in a way that brings viewers to my program, because they’re seeing something new. I told that to Kasich, who I think is most qualified of all to be president. Trump was provocative and that is where TV will always go. He manipulated the media.”
Podhoretz has a response to that argument, as well: “Trump’s entire campaign is based on free television,” he said. “If you can pretend that a guy making fake news is news and you cover it breathlessly, own up to it. [CBS chief] Les Moonves said Trump may be bad for the country but he’s good for us. The print media has been vastly better. You can’t even compare it. Newspapers have been reasonably responsible in exposing Trump’s lies and untruths.” But even the disconnect between what passes for news in print and on television, he said, “gives the media plausible deniability.” And the result?
“Trump will be the nominee,” says Podhoretz. “If they try to take it away from him, imagine the fistfights on the floor of the Republican convention. The Republicans are going to vote in a bunch of psychotics. At least Hillary’s not a psychopath, she’s just a crook. They’ll have to choose between voting for a psychopath or voting for a crook. It’s the party that fell to pieces.”
That notion was echoed by Remnick, who sounded remorseful as he described the way the presidential campaign and the coverage of it have unfolded. “Trump is so incredibly complicit in creating this figure as an unembarrassable buffoon! There was no bullshit he would not sling out,” he said, making it all too easy to go along with the ride on a story that seemed to write itself — which was precisely the problem: “Our political imaginations suffered. The responsibility of the press is to put pressure on power, and put pressure on liars. In Trump’s case we have our responsibility.”
The question remains, why did it take so many so long before that sense of responsibility kicked in? For answers, we can look forward to hours of talking heads and miles of column inches devoted to explaining with perfect confidence how a national election veered out of control.