There is no Donald Trump rally, and barely a Trump interview, in which he does not assert that he's being treated unfairly by the media. This may seem odd coming from a man who built his career on getting his face and name in the New York press, and whose presidential campaign has existed almost solely as a media entity, with little in the way of traditional campaign organization. In March, The New York Times pegged the value of all the news coverage Trump had received at $2 billion; a later study from Harvard University's Shorenstein Center found that not only did Trump get far more coverage than any other candidate through the primaries (obviously), but that the tone of his coverage was more positive than what Hillary Clinton got.
Trump's real complaint seems to be that when he opens his mouth, news organizations report what comes out, and he comes out looking bad. After all, when a presidential nominee gets into a week-long fight with the parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq, it's hard to argue that it isn't news, or that it's the journalists' fault that it doesn't reflect well on Trump.
But even Donald Trump could be the subject of needlessly shallow coverage. Granted, it's hard to do in-depth stories exploring his policy proposals, since what he has proposed is so superficial. But some stories are more meaningful than others. We spend all campaign lurching from one microcontroversy to the next, from "gaffe" to squabble to faux-outrage, and if you ask members of the media why they're covering some seemingly trivial matter, you're likely to get a tautological answer (we're all covering it because it's what we're all covering) or something vague like "it goes to character."
What does that actually mean? What it ought to mean is that a story is worth covering because it reveals something important about what sort of president the candidate might be. That, after all, is the whole point of the campaign: So the candidates can make their case, and we can assess them and make some sort of prediction about the next four years. The excruciating campaign is a kind of trial-by-exhaustion that is supposed to reveal the candidate's true strengths and weaknesses.
You can acknowledge that coverage of policy issues is vital and there isn't nearly enough of it without denying that all the personality-focused coverage has a purpose as well. For instance, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would pursue many of the same policies if either one were president, particularly on domestic matters. Any Democrat we elect is going to try to strengthen the safety net, protect abortion rights, cut greenhouse emissions, expand health care access, and so on; any Republican would do roughly the opposite.
But Clinton and Sanders are also very different people who would probably react to the same situations in different ways. The presidency invests tremendous power in one person, and that person's own habits of mind or personal demons can have a significant impact. Barack Obama's presidency has been shaped by his calm, patient approach to problems, usually (but not necessarily always) for the better. His predecessor was more impulsive, trusting his gut more than reams of information; we saw the results in things like the Iraq War. Those characteristics were evident when they ran for president.
So which of the things we've been obsessing over could actually tell us something about the next presidency? Let's take a look at some recent Trump controversies.
How about Trump's drawn-out conflict with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son U.S. Army Capt. Humayun was killed in Iraq — does it reveal anything useful? The answer here is that it does: It casts in even starker relief than we've seen before that Trump finds it impossible to let any criticism slide off him without striking back. This could have serious implications in international relations. What happens when Kim Jong Un calls Trump a capitalist lapdog? Will it precipitate a nuclear crisis? If Trump refuses to back off the Khans no matter how many Republicans criticize him for it (and, I'm presuming, his staff begs him to stop), does that reflect a stubbornness that could be the enemy of the kind of sober calculations a president has to make?
Or how about Trump's refusal to endorse Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and his other conflicts with Republican members of Congress like John McCain? The source may be the same — Trump holding a grudge — but it suggests that he could have serious problems dealing with Congress. If he can't get past his hurt feelings over how long it took Ryan to endorse him, does that indicate he'll have trouble assembling coalitions to pass complex legislation?
There are other kinds of controversies, when Trump (or another candidate) reveals views many people find repellent. When he was asked recently about how women should handle sexual harassment, Trump said, "It's got to be up to the individual." When pressed on what he would think if his daughter were sexually harassed, he responded, "I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case." People were outraged at his apparent belief that it's up to the victim of harassment to leave her job and remake her life, but one could argue that while it might make you think Trump is a jerk, it probably wouldn't change what kind of president you think he'd be. Even if, as he says, he has a good record of hiring women for influential positions, he still opposes the right to choose, equal pay laws, and Medicaid reimbursements for Planned Parenthood. He could have the most thoughtful position imaginable on sexual harassment and those things would still be true.
Then there are the "Here's a crazy thing he said today" stories, where it's almost impossible to find a connection to the job the president does. When we learn from reporters that Trump (sort of) kicked a baby out of one of his rallies, what have we actually learned? Nothing, really, even if it's amusing. I loved the story of Trump going to Loudoun county in Virginia, which because of its proximity to booming Washington, DC is the richest county in the country, and telling the crowd, "You're doing lousy over here, I hate to tell you." He then offered his evidence of this economic misery, in the form of factory closings as much as five hours drive from where he was standing (including one in North Carolina). But so what?
That demonstrates a general cluelessness, but if you wanted to make the case that Trump is a nincompoop, you could come up with any number of better examples. If Trump believes that the media are delighting in his spectacular run of face-plants in the last few days, it is indeed because of "bias," just not the kind he's thinking of. They aren't showing every buffoonish new statement he makes because they're out to deny him the presidency, but because nothing makes political reporters happier than candidates tripping over their shoelaces, literally or figuratively. "Candidate Issues Tax Plan" is news, but it doesn't generate huge volumes of clicks; "Candidate Splits Pants While Punching Kitten" is gold.
Donald Trump is generating such a high volume of both kinds of negative stories — the trivial and the meaningful — that by the time this race is over, we should all have a very good idea of what sort of president he'd be. That might not be so great for him, but it'll be good for the public.