As our would-be white-ethnic-nationalist overlord savors his smashing triumph in Nevada and rounds the bend into the Super Tuesday contests, in which he's on track to once again crush Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, it's worth pausing to reflect on how we got here — and how we didn't.
At fairly regular intervals during this unorthodox election season, pundits alarmed by the rise of Donald Trump have lashed out at the media for enabling his rise. The most recent round of recriminations took place earlier this week, when NBC News ran a story about campaign expenditures that concluded by noting that the Trump campaign "hasn't spent a single cent on ads in Super Tuesday states."
How is this possible? Because the media can't shut up about him. Trump's insults, rudeness, threats of violence, racism, sexism, and vulgarity are so far beyond the prevailing political norms that all he needs to do is open his mouth or write a tweet in order to generate a newsworthy story. The result has been an unceasing flood of free publicity since last summer. Which means that Trump's success is a mainstream media creation, and it's the mainstream media that deserve the lion's share of the blame for it.
Except that this is nonsense — the same kind of nonsense that leads critics of Citizens United to attribute quasi-occult powers to super PACs.
Has the mainstream media been helpful to Trump? Absolutely. For one thing, they've saved him an enormous amount of money. That's not nothing. It's nice to get something for free instead of having to pay for it.
But attention and publicity aren't support, regardless of who's picking up the tab.
Consider poor Jeb Bush with his mountains of super PAC money. His campaign and its surrogates blanketed the early states with ads. No one in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina who was even remotely informed could have wondered, "Gee, who's this Jeb Bush fella on the ballot?"
And yet Jeb tanked, completely and consistently. Not because voters didn't know who he was, but because they did — and because the vast majority of them knew they didn't want him to be their party's presidential nominee.
Or consider Trump himself.
He's been all over the news for eight months now. And the result is that he's the most unpopular person running for president from either party. Now of course he's also immensely popular with a plurality of Republican voters. But that's not primarily a function of the attention and publicity he's received. It's a function of those voters liking what they hear when they encounter that attention and publicity — as opposed to the roughly 58 percent of Americans who respond far more negatively to it.
The lesson is clear: You can't buy votes. Or rather, you can buy votes in Congress — by throwing large sums of money at career politicians in return for support on specific bills. But short of engaging in direct acts of bribery, you can't use money to make voters support a candidate.
All that money can do is get a candidate noticed by a large number of people. Then it's up to the candidate to close the deal — and that depends on reaching an audience receptive to the pitch.
If you want to assign blame for Trump's disruptive rise, you need to look for those forces in American life that have prepared voters to swoon for his demagogic message.
That's not the mainstream media.
What it is, in large part, is the mainstream media's mortal enemy: the Republican noise machine, especially talk radio and Fox News. A number of right-wing talkers may have turned against Trump in the past couple of months, and Fox's management and some of its on-air talent might despise him. But that doesn't mean that they haven't prepared the way for him by relentlessly bashing government, liberals, progressives, universities, journalists, judges, and a host of other public institutions, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year since the 1990s.
After 20-odd years of having that message drilled into their heads, the Republican base has bought into the anti-establishment ideology so completely that a good portion of its members appear ready to overthrow the Republican Party itself.
That's not the fault of mainstream news organizations and journalists any more than a deadly virus is the fault of all microscopic forms of life. Some microbes are benign, while others are lethal.
Remember that the next time you hear someone blame "the media" for the rise of Donald Trump.