Remember when August was a slow news month for politics?
It’s supposed to be. Or at least, it usually is.
It’s too hot to survive in Washington, so many people in politics go on vacation. The conventions have already happened. The presidential debates aren’t for another six weeks. Political junkies have been paying attention to the election for months and are near exhaustion; most of America won’t start paying attention until the weather starts to turn.
Nothing important happens in August. That gives journalists two choices: detach from the news cycle for other things, or indulge in the “silly season” — “the time of year,” as Chris Weigant wrote in 2013, “when everyone in the political arena decides to focus on some amazingly silly ‘issues,’ through nothing more than sheer boredom.”
But like so many other cherished political norms, Donald Trump has ruined the silly season. Because while the controversies Trump causes are often ridiculous, they’re rarely genuinely silly. Nothing Trump does or says is inconsequential enough to justify ignoring.
Trump’s most ridiculous statements carry important consequences
Outside the world of Trump, August is very much behaving in the usual way: Not a lot is happening. But Trump is behaving in his usual way: saying ridiculous things as a way to dominate the news cycle, because that is the point of his presidential campaign.
The upshot: There aren’t any non-Trump stories to compete for the attention of political journalists or their audiences. It’s all Trump, all the time.
Take the second week of August, for example. The week was essentially dominated by two news stories: Trump suggesting that maybe “Second Amendment people” could “stop” a President Hillary Clinton or the judges she might appoint, and Trump calling Obama “the founder of ISIS.”
Both of these are ridiculous things. But, like so many of the ridiculous things Trump says, they carry consequences: for what sort of president he would be, for how his followers will act, for the future of American political discourse. It’s possible to refuse to pay attention to such things, but it’s moderately irresponsible.
The Second Amendment comments, for example, were a total word salad. But they were also, possibly, something that a Trump supporter somewhere could hear as a call to assassinate Trump’s opponent.
If the person speaking those words had been someone other than Donald Trump, would the media still have read an assassination threat into them? Maybe not — and maybe, if they had, it would just be another illustration of a ginned-up Silly Season story.
But that misses the point. If Trump weren’t Trump, there wouldn’t be as much of a danger that his supporters might have heard it that way. That is a risk a presidential candidate should not take, and it was important to say that.
The claim that Obama “founded” ISIS, meanwhile, could easily have been a Silly Season story. It sounded, at first, like a characteristically clumsy and exaggerated version of a talking point that other Republicans had made: that Obama’s policies created the conditions in Iraq that allowed ISIS to flourish. Trump was engaging in hyperbole for the sake of provocation, but that didn’t mean that he had to be taken literally any more than when he explained a metaphor he was using by calling Hillary Clinton “the devil.”
Then Trump, given an opportunity to clarify that he was just putting his own spin on the standard GOP talking point, refused — and insisted that what he was saying was that Obama (or at least his policies) “founded” ISIS, no more and no less. And then, the next day, he tried to wave the whole thing off as “sarcasm” — trying to wipe the slate clean by insisting that it was foolish to take him at his word.
In other words, Trump turned a silly story about a simple act of campaign hyperbole into proof that he doesn’t think about the consequences of what he’s saying — that in fact he positively believes he shouldn’t be held accountable for those consequences. That is a terrible trait in a president or a would-be president, and it is a terrible trait in a leader of millions of passionate supporters who are already primed to believe that Democrats will steal the election.
That’s not silly. Few of the things Trump says truly are.
What we’re missing by not having a “silly season”
In its way, this is better than having a “silly season” — it’s better to talk about things that matter for America than things that don’t. (This isn’t to say that it’s a good thing that we have to reiterate that these particular things matter, just that it’s better to spend outrage on something deserving of it.)
But there’s certainly an opportunity cost. In a typical year, responsible news outlets could use “silly season” as an excuse to take a few weeks working on harder projects: digging into policy proposals, for example, or educating voters about what sort of people the presidential candidates are.
There’s some of that. But there isn’t as much as there could be in a normal cycle. Hillary Clinton has attempted to bury America in white papers, and few of them have actually gotten the scrutiny they deserve.
Neither have the few policy proposals Trump has actually outlined in detail — Trump’s website has for months had a “Positions” section with proposals on, for example, veterans’ aid and making Mexico pay for the wall, but I keep seeing people discover it for the first time and ask if it’s new.
Of course, there are only a handful of proposals on that website. For the most part, Trump’s policy proposals come at us the same way everything else does: through ridiculous comments made by Donald Trump.
Political scientists talk about the difference between “referendum” elections (“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”) and “choice” elections where voters are weighing both candidates against each other. In a conventional referendum election, Hillary Clinton would have had an uphill battle; as it is, she might be headed for a landslide.
But this isn’t even a conventional “choice” election. Hillary Clinton, for better or worse, isn’t getting the attention that most candidates running for president get. Donald Trump is sucking all of it up. August is serving the same function in 2016 that every other phase of the general election has: a referendum on the character, fitness for office, and movement of Donald J. Trump.