Donald Trump has become a monster, and the media must share the blame
Kevin Rafferty says the billionaire’s presidential campaign benefits greatly from media attention, and the more controversial and appalling things he says, the more free airtime he receives
All America’s politicians and pundits declared confidently that Donald Trump was a joke as a presidential candidate, and he would be finished as soon as real campaigning began.
Yet, it’s mid-February, and Trump is triumphing: a crushing victory in New Hampshire and huge leads over his conventional Republican opponents. Bookmakers have shortened the odds on him becoming president, making him second only to Hillary Clinton. Some pundits, even those on the left, now say Trump could go all the way to the White House.
But there will be a terrible price to pay – for America and the world – unless Trump is stopped. That is tough because of the deep corruption in the American system.
Trump is a toxic by-product of the capture and purchase of the American polity by Wall Street and its corporate allies.
Trump himself is commonly misperceived as one of the giants of big business. He is a maverick. His business reputation is actually far from the slam-dunk success he pretends. He has built his political platform pandering to the ordinary folk of middle America, many of whom are victims of modern capitalism. That is also why the Republican establishment, entwined with big finance, is uncomfortable about his rise.
He is a billionaire when money politics is driving the presidential race, which may cost up to US$5 billion, against US$2.6 billion spent in 2012. But Trump is living on the free air of media attention. In New Hampshire, he spent just US$3.7 million, against more than US$36 million that Jeb Bush spent to come in fourth.
The more controversial he gets, the more free time he receives. To win headlines, he makes sure that nothing uncomfortable like facts, good taste, respect for opponents or practical politics gets in his way.
As he tramples the media, they are afraid to challenge or contradict him even when he is plainly wrong. As Matt Taibbi noted in Rolling Stone, the problem for television is: “How do we keep getting the great ratings without helping elect the Fourth Reich?”
He has said appalling things and got away with applause. He promised to build a wall on the US southern border – which would have to be 3,220km long – to keep greedy Mexicans from entering the US to steal Americans’ jobs, and to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants within two years.
He called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. He claimed that 25 per cent of Muslims in America believed that violence against Americans was justified as part of a global jihad and 51 per cent of Muslims want to be governed by sharia law.
He demanded a 45 per cent tariff on products from China, whose goods – he claims – are stealing American jobs.
He has insulted anyone who dares to challenge him. There have been feeble protests. The White House retorted that Trump’s views disqualified him from being president. Clinton said Trump’s views were “reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive”. Bush, whom Trump has destroyed as a serious presidential contender, described Trump as “unhinged”. Serious Republicans were more measured. Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, said Trump’s plans to exclude Muslims were “not what this country stands for.”
The cowardly Republican establishment is not prepared to knock heads together and put up a mainstream candidate against Trump, partly because of infighting and partly because there is no attractive figure.
It’s also because monster Trump is a co-creation of the media and Republicans’ persistent failure to understand that successful politics is the art of the possible, not the insistence on ideological purity that only leads to extremism or terrorism: enter Trump.
Serious supporters claim that, if elected, Trump would calm down, that actually he has some good ideas and his refreshing, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners attitude would cut through the verbiage and over-regulation that have bedevilled American politics.
We have to assume that an elected Trump would find prime space and time for key ideas he has touted: these would plunge America and the world into expensive chaos.
The barrier with Mexico would cost billions. Mass deportations of 11 million undocumented immigrants cannot be done in Trump’s two-year time frame. America has the capacity to deport 400,000 people a year, and even this would cause untold hardship by tearing families apart, since several million children of immigrants are American citizens by birthright.
Preventing Muslims from entering the US would be difficult (since passports do not record religion), unconstitutional, and against everything that the US has stood for. Does America really want to anger up to 1.5 billion Muslims and create who knows how many instant jihadists?
Trump’s defenders say that economic ideas, including punishing China, are sensible and cite a study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute that between 2001 and 2013 the trade deficit with China cost 3.2 million jobs. This is music to the ears of depressed and underemployed middle Americans who are Trump’s best voting hope.
However, the reality of the 21st century is more complicated than Trump imagines. American manufacturing jobs have been lost for many reasons, including the declining power of trade unions, diminishing competitiveness of Americans in a global world, and the enthusiastic rush of companies to outsource production and profit from the rise of China.
Imposing unilateral tariffs against China would defy World Trade Organisation rules and invite retaliation. And where are the US factories and workers able to make iPhones, for example, at a competitive price?
In the long run, it would be possible to rebuild American factories and old patterns of trade, but remember Keynes’ time horizon – in the long run we are all dead. Trump clearly has no understanding that good government cannot be practised by sound bite or tweet, or by blundering from one impulse to the next. Worse, Trump’s bullying world view is that America must be a winner and the rest of the world all losers. But it ain’t the case: the rest of the world got smarter and America has to catch up or perish.
Kevin Rafferty worked in Washington DC for the World Bank