Donald Trump is staggeringly unpopular in the United Kingdom, with most miffed about how a campaign such as his could gain the astonishing traction it has. The majority of those then conclude that racism isn’t dead across the pond and that demagogues can win because, hey, look what happened in the 1930s.
These are unsurprising assumptions from those who dip in and out of the race and need constant reminders of how the electoral college works. They aren’t wholly wrong, but they can’t truly understand what’s going on as they aren’t immersed in the madcap reality Americans currently are.
Trump has gone after Mexico, China and goodness knows where else, but his most persistent and successful attacks have been levelled at an enemy much closer to home: the mainstream media.
Trump laid the groundwork for this when he kicked off his campaign, and has continued to build on it throughout. Barely a rally goes by without a fierce probe on the ‘dishonest press’ for not panning the crowd or reporting accurately – or at least Trump’s version of accurately. Cringe-inducing tweets about a “dopey” journalist or how much of a disaster former promoter Morning Joe is come morning, noon and night too.
This war on the media has proven mightily effective, so much so that he can easily spout a plethora of lies and half-truths before dodging the splashback. Harsh criticism of Trump from the media, whether it’s warranted or not, screams of, “Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?” to his fervent followers, many of whom then visit their chosen online right-wing source for the “real” news, if only for confirmation bias.
Americans’ trust in the mass media is at a historical low, with just 32 percent saying they have either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust, according to a recent Gallup poll – an 8-percent decline from a year ago. Much of that can be attributed to Trump, who has simply exploited the omnipresent scepticism of mainstream media. Moreover, a CNN poll discovered that 50 percent deem Trump trustworthy. That’s a whopping 18 percent higher than the media’s trust ratings, and 15 percent greater than Hillary Clinton’s, his presidential adversary.
It’s what makes fact-checking a waste of time too, even from those doing it diligently with noble intentions.
Trump’s lies are pretty obvious – like when he called Clinton the co-founder of Islamic State who, as we all know, was in cahoots with President Barack Obama. Or when he said that Clinton would “abolish the Second Amendment”. But if a voter isn’t picking up on his brazen lies from the off, they aren’t about to do so from a smarmy know-it-all whose reputation Trump has directly or indirectly chipped away at.
Independent fact-checkers are a bit better, but once into the muddier waters of half-lies and half-truths, the implicit bias of the author will inevitably slip in, no matter how much they strive to be impartial.
Not to mention, those with the time and desire to traipse through a fact-checking sheet are likely to be well aware of the happenings of the election and the world to have worked out the “pants on fire” stuff for themselves. Fact-checking is a tool made by political junkies for political junkies, so trapped in their echo chamber that they think everyone cares about the new CNN poll for Pennsylvania and the subtleties of the crosstabs.
Trump is nigh on politically bombproof to media criticism; it’s his penchant for a personal dogfight which has harmed him – borne out of his thin skin and political inexperience. A sweeping generalisation on illegal Mexican immigrants being rapists is forgotten because it’s political, a singular attack from an oafish Trump on an undeserving target isn’t since it’s personal – a big guy going after a little guy doesn’t play well, unless that little guy is Marco Rubio.
Had Trump buried the Obama birther debate years ago, left Judge Gonzalo Curiel alone and responded respectfully with an olive branch to the Gold Star Khan family, he would probably be on his way to victory, simply because despite all of this it’s still a very tight race, largely because – on a personal level at least – Clinton is also an appalling candidate whose image has plummeted.
But, of course, that’s not in his nature, and Democrats are ever-grateful it isn’t, for it has given them plenty of juicy ad material and nice bait for Trump to hook himself with, as Clinton demonstrated in the first debate.
It comes from Trump’s belief that “all publicity is good publicity” and that as a counter-puncher, if someone, anyone, hits him – or he perceives them to have – then he must whack back twice as hard. That may work in business, but on the political battlefield, it’s about knowing when to pick or avoid fights.
If Trump loses by a big margin on November 8, something looking increasingly unlikely, he and his ideas would have been firmly rejected. A narrow defeat, however, it would be because the electorate deemed the orator of those ideas too inarticulate and lacking the political savvy to be a safe pair of hands in the White House.
But if Trump wins, it won’t be because of policy, for he has few. Nor will it solely be down to his brash outsider status. No, the main reason will be because he took on the media, discredited them further and, in doing so, made himself immune – even when he had no right to be.