Something new and morbidly interesting is happening in US politics and media, but no one can agree on exactly how to characterize it. Superficially, it is about the lies told by Donald Trump, but it's about much more than that, as well.
As Jay Rosen documents in a recent post, the Beltway political media has recently become alarmed by Donald Trump's lies. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, to whom "nothing is shocking anymore," says there used to be "a line that wasn't crossed in years past, a sort of even-partisans-can-agree-on-this standard," but Trump has crossed it. NBC's First Read, the blog of Meet the Press, says Trump has taken lying "to a level we haven't seen before in American politics." The Post and New York Times editorial boards have both publicly wrung hands. Our own Dylan Matthews wrote recently about how Trump's lying has flummoxed the media.
As everyone acknowledges, politicians have always lied. So what's going on here? How are Trump's lies different? Are they just more voluminous, more flagrant? Or is there something deeper going on that has unsettled the media establishment?
That was foreshadowing! Because, yes, I think there is something more going on.
Trump has gone from an entertaining player to someone who threatens the game
Media outlets aren't quite panicking yet. They thought they had a good handle on Trump when he emerged — just another Herman Cain, a conservative newcomer who would briefly capture the attention of early primary voters until they, under the guiding hand of party elders, "got serious" and chose an electable moderate like John McCain or Mitt Romney.
This is a model with which political analysts are extremely familiar. Many still think it fits, that Trump will flame out and the establishment will rally around an alternative.
Maybe so. But Trump's dominance has gone on longer than anyone predicted, and it is making all kinds of people nervous, including the establishment media — the Sunday shows, horse race pundits, and Villagers who have become such an integral part of the Beltway political class.
Their trepidation has less to do with the fact of Trump lying than with the way he lies. They don't mind being properly lied to; it's all part of the game. What they cannot countenance is being rendered irrelevant. Trump is not kissing the ring. He barely bothers to spin the media. He does not need them, or give two shits what centrist pundits think. Their disapproval only strengthens him. Media gatekeepers are in danger of being exposed as impotent bystanders.
The US conservative movement's truthiness predates Trump
It's a mistake to see Trump as de novo. The term is all over the place now, but I wrote my first column about "post-truth politics" back in 2010 (see follow-ups here and here). Conservatives have been bending the truth for many years now. Romney and Ryan lied like crazy in the 2012 campaign. Republicans in Congress have been telling outrageous lies about Obama for almost eight years, everything from his secret Muslim-hood to Agenda 21 to his plan to confiscate guns and to institute Sharia law.
Remember Sarah Palin and death panels? Swift Vets going after Kerry? Bush and Cheney and weapons of mass destruction? Clinton having Vince Foster shot? Oh, and climate change being a coordinated global hoax? The increasing radicalization and insularity of the conservative movement over the past several decades has made it, in Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann's words, "unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science."
Of course, all politicians bend the truth, and Democrats do it too. But the parties are not symmetrical in this regard. There is simply nothing on the left like the phenomenon of numerous elected politicians and a third of Republicans believing that Obama is training troops in Jade Helm for a coup. That is wackadoodle, Alex Jones–level stuff, and it is routine on the right. The other day Ted Cruz speculated, based on a clerical error hyped by a far-right blog, that the Planned Parenthood shooter is a "transgendered leftist activist." It was wildly irresponsible, but it barely qualified as the most outrageous howler of the day.
Donald Trump's nonsense is not appreciably more nonsensical than much of what circulates in right-wing media every day, the same right-wing media Beltway reporters have been treating with kid gloves for years. Why do his lies rankle so?
The media's power to penalize politicians for lying has declined precipitously
Politicians have always lied. But in the days when there were fewer media outlets and their power was more consolidated, politicians' ability to lie was at least somewhat shaped and tempered by the media. Certain kinds of lies have always mattered more than others, but it wasn't a free-for-all; there was a pretense of commonly shared facts and values, even if it was often honored in the breach. Media at least posed some threat to a lying politician, as established by such mythologized episodes as Edward R. Murrow repudiating Joseph McCarthy and the Washington Post exposing Watergate.
What's happened from (roughly) Gingrich forward is that the right has used coordinated institutional power and the explosion of new communications technology to sap the media's power to do damage.
This has been done in two ways. First is the unceasing attack on "liberal media bias," which has left journalists terrified of passing judgment on any matter of controversy. And second is the development of a parallel intellectual infrastructure, a network of partisan think tanks, advocacy organizations, and media outlets that provide a kind of full-spectrum alternative to the mainstream. (See here for more on how right-wing media dragged the party right.)
The establishment media has largely proven feckless in the face of this assault, clinging to the view-from-nowhere model even as an unabashed arm of the GOP became the highest-rated "news network." Now there are so many outlets, so many voices, that the old guard has very little control over the narrative. They have less and less power to penalize a politician for lying even if they want to; there's always another outlet with a more congenial perspective.
Even as its power erodes, though, the rituals and habits of insider political media remain, a kind of polite fiction, one that politicians pay respect to by participating. There has been a kind of fragile detente. A certain style of lying has become more or less acceptable, as long as it follows unspoken rules.
Trump breaks the rules of political lying
Trump represents, or could represent, the end of that detente. He breaks the rules of political lying:
1) Lies about policy are fine; lies about trivial, personal, or easily verifiable claims are not.
The media has been cowed from making any judgments about policy, which is why Jeb Bush can claim he'll create 4 percent growth by fiat and not become a laughingstock. Every Republican candidate who has put out a tax plan has relied on a whole series of fantastical judgments about the ability of regressive tax cuts to spur economic growth, but Chuck Todd hasn't denounced them as liars.
But when a politician lies about little things, personal experiences and anecdotes, the media pounces. This was notoriously on display during Al Gore's 1999 presidential campaign, during which reporters uncovered (or in many cases, fabricated) endless misstatements or contradictions about trivial particulars. When Hillary Clinton said she once landed in Bosnia "under fire," the media went nuts. They went nuts about the details of Kerry's war record. They're going nuts now about Ben Carson's biographical anecdotes. Exposing (or hyping) stuff like this is what the media now views as "tough."
Trump is lying about policy, of course, but he's also telling a whole string of smaller lies that are easy to refute. He knows they're easy to refute, he knows they've been refuted, and he just keeps repeating them. There's the nonsense about seeing Muslims cheering 9/11. There's ISIS building a luxury hotel in Syria. There's his campaign being self-funded. There's 300,000 veterans dying while waiting for medical care. It's endless; Kevin Drum has a list of 26 and counting.
These are the kinds of random, specific lies the establishment punditry feels empowered to call out. And they have called them out. But neither Trump nor his followers care. The emperor has no clothes.
2) Lies are fine as long as an "other side" is provided.
As long as both sides have their claims and counterclaims, studies and counterstudies, experts and counterexperts, the objective media knows its role. Quote this one, quote that one, opinions differ, done.
This is the part played by the conservative network of think tanks and media outlets — to provide a "side" to back any conservative claim, so there are always two. That way, the media feels safe sticking to "he said, she said." It's a comfy arrangement.
But Trump is a free agent. He's not tapped into that network and doesn't seem to need it. He feels no obligation at all to supply the media with institutional support that might legitimize his positions. He rarely mentions studies or experts, other than occasionally name-dropping Carl Icahn. He rarely mounts anything that could even be characterized as an argument. He simply asserts.
By doing this, he disrupts the arrangement. He doesn't offer journalists any cover for their refusal to make a judgment. He calls their bluff, forcing them to be with him or against him.
3) Nine lies are fine as long as the 10th is retracted.
Every so often, when a politician goes overboard and makes an obviously, verifiably false claim about a matter of recorded fact, the media will browbeat him or her into retracting it and apologizing. (Even Carly Fiorina is still subject to this; she retracted a claim she made in the debate after some outraged media fact-checking.)
An occasional victory like this on some trivial matter validates the media's role. More to the point, it affirms that the politician in question respects the media's role, that it still matters if the media unites in protest to a particular claim. Given this occasional prize, the high-profile campaign journalists of the world will let more complex and consequential falsehoods fly under the radar.
But Trump does not back down, retract, or apologize, ever, not even for the most trivial thing. He refuses to allow journalists and pundits to validate their watchdog role. He recognizes that capitulating to the mainstream media is far worse for any conservative than clinging to a lie. (Fiorina, for instance, was pilloried for backing down.) They have no power over him at all, and now everyone knows it.
Trump is revealing that the referees are irrelevant
All this rule breaking has the same effect: It disrupts the game as the media is used to playing it. It steps all over the unspoken agreements among various sectors of the political class in DC. It threatens the gatekeeper media, the VSPs, with something far worse than being wrong or biased. It threatens them with being irrelevant. Trump doesn't need or respect them, and they can't touch him. They can only point and gawk.
But it's wrong to view this as a result of Trump's idiosyncrasies. He's just an opportunist who was in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of a faction of the electorate that has been primed to respond to someone like him.
Republican billionaires and political operators have spent decades building a self-contained epistemic bubble in which they could pump up the right-wing base with fear and paranoia. Now the Frankenstein's monster has lumbered off the table and crashed into the cocktail party. It no longer heeds the GOP establishment, and it utterly disdains the media. All Trump does is give it voice. He is what happens when conservatives stop being polite and start getting real.
For now, the political class is on tenterhooks, waiting with nervous anticipation to see whether the familiar order will reassert itself, whether Trump will fade and be replaced by someone with more respect for the way the game is played in DC.
And maybe that will happen — maybe this has all been a disturbance in the force that will calm itself before 2016 — but the social and demographic trends driving the Trump phenomenon are far deeper than Trump himself. They will outlast him.
There is a faction of the US electorate that is positively wroth: angry that they are losing their country, angry at immigrants and minorities who want "free stuff," angry at terrorists for making them feel afraid, angry at liberals for rejecting good Christian values, angry at the economy for screwing them and denying them the better life they were promised, angry about Solyndra and Benghazi and Obamaphones and Sharia law and ACORN and Planned Parenthood and black-on-black crime and a government takeover of health care and Agenda 21 and Syrian immigrants on the loose and UN climate hoaxes. They are angry at all institutions, including the Republican Party and the media, that have failed to halt America's decline.
They are mostly white, mostly older, and entirely pissed off. And Trump speaks for them, less in what he says than in his total contempt for those same institutions.
The anger is understandable, even justifiable in many ways, but unfortunately it also involves believing lots of nonsense. And no amount of understanding and empathy can make Jade Helm anything but, factually speaking, nonsense.
Thus the dilemma. The old-guard political media has always seen itself as a disinterested referee. But what they confront now is aggressive, unapologetic nonsense, piped up from a nationalist, ethnocentric, revanchist conservative base through the mouth of one Donald J. Trump. He is forcing them to choose sides, to accept his bare assertions and make a mockery of their purported allegiance to accuracy ... or to call him out and, in the eyes of his supporters, formally align against him.
The conceptual space for neutrality has all but disappeared. Media outlets are being forced to take sides, and facing the grim possibility that even if they do, they have no power to affect the outcome. Their twin idols — objectivity and influence — are being exposed as illusions. That's what has them so anxious about Donald Trump.