Donald Trump photo by Michael Vadon
Look out, Donald Trump: The pundits are changing the narrative.Check out Joe Klein of Time. In a recent column, he hailed Hillary Clinton’s sudden success at deflating the Trumpster, especially the “blunt, confident language” she used to deliver “a scolding for the ages.” The more she keeps it up, he predicted, “the more Trump will seem the petulant child he so clearly is.”
But in his column just the week before, Klein joined other pontificators in clucking about how Hillary couldn’t seem to lay a glove on the guy. Trump, he said, “brilliantly” uses the daily news cycle contest to his advantage, to garner media attention and distract from stories that might play to his detriment. Meanwhile, poor Hillary can’t even manage to put a dent in Trump’s teflon when she’s handed such battering rams as the revelation that he yearned for the housing-market collapse that robbed millions of Americans of their homes and jobs.
“I sort of hope that happens,” Trump said in 2006, before the housing bubble burst, “because then people like me would go in and buy” properties cheaply and “make a lot of money.”
Clinton pounced on these remarks, which Klein said should have been a slam-dunk for that day’s news cycle battle. But, alas, Trump slid sideways with a glib remark about how “You have to be wealthy in order to be great.” He also took a jab at fellow critic Elizabeth Warren for having also made money from foreclosed properties. Allegedly.
“Ouch,” concluded Klein. “Clinton had not only lost the day but was trounced; indeed, the incident became the substance of another round of punditory hand-wringing about Clinton’s failed ‘messaging.’ ”
Aside from "punditory" not being a word, Klein’s analysis failed to acknowledge how deeply this outcome was connected to the media’s narrative for the whole campaign.
I watched the pundits on cable TV that night. I heard them dismiss the possibility that Trump’s comments about profiteering from the suffering of others—including, undoubtedly, some of his own supporters—might somehow work to his disadvantage. No, they said, this too will roll off him, like water from a duck. That was the narrative of the moment, the one they had created and have continued to feed.
Instead, the pundits could have said: “Gosh, this really looks bad. It reminds people that he cares principally about himself, and that he has essentially no conscience when it comes to advancing his own interests.” They could have said: “These comments, like others before them, expose Trump’s efforts to portray himself as a working-class hero as fraudulent.”
But they didn’t, because that wasn’t the media narrative of the moment.
Now the story is different. The new narrative is that Trump is vulnerable. He has been roundly condemned for attacking the ethnicity of the judge presiding over litigation stemming from the calculated fleecing of students at Trump University. There are renewed calls for Trump to release his tax returns. The Republicans who have endorsed him are being asked hard questions about what this may mean for their own political futures. There is renewed scheming about denying Trump the nomination.
The new narrative is that Trump has gone too far. He is seen now as on the defensive, perhaps even on the ropes.
As a news consumer, I watch these seismic shifts in collective perception with bemusement. Donald Trump now is no more toxic than he was a few weeks ago, when he was considered impervious to criticism. He has always been just as pompous, ignorant, mean, and manifestly unfit for the presidency as he is today.
The only thing that has changed is the narrative.
Perhaps the pundits were moved by the continued signs of unrest among mainstream Republicans about their party’s presumptive nominee. A few days ago, Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, withdrew his support for the Donald, saying “I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for president regardless of the political impact on my candidacy or the Republican Party.” (Actually, the impact on Kirk’s own candidacy—he’s facing a tough battle for reelection this fall against candidates including Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth—is likely to be positive. That’s how far Trump’s fortunes have fallen.)
Or maybe the narrative changed because journalists finally got tired of being bashed by Trump as “not good people,” “dishonest,” and “sleazy,” after months of stoically accepting Trump’s withering disrespect. The chief obligations of mainstream reporters are to be accurate and fair. There is no reason those goals are incompatible with sticking it to Donald Trump, who is neither.
Or maybe news writers and opinion-makers just got bored with the old narrative.
Maybe, probably, the narrative will shift again. But if we get the straight reporting and analysis Trump’s candidacy deserves, his troubles will continue. Presumptive nominee Trump is a monster that the press, including the pundits, helped create. They owe it to the country to help bring him down.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.