It’s Donald Trump’s world, the media is just living in it. Problem is, they don’t seem to know it.
Ever since the mogul announced his candidacy last June — to a chorus of sniggers from Beltway reporters and professional pundits — he’s built a political momentum that on Tuesday night won him his third Republican primary state by a landslide.
Yet the punditocracy has been predicting Trump’s collapse with blind certainty from the very beginning. Outlets from the New York Times, to Nate Silver’s “data-driven” FiveThirtyEight, to official news-explainer Vox.com have consistently dismissed the idea that Trump could win an actual primary, let alone the GOP nomination.
So how might one explain the months and months of botched predictions, analyses and wisecracks while Trump consolidated his power in front of our eyes? For those writers and reporters inhabiting the clubby biodomes of New York and D.C., Trump was at best a sideshow who could only appeal to a handful of backward and racist voters. Serious people, from the mythical “GOP establishment” to media figures themselves, would surely rein in this gag candidacy before things got out of hand. Or so the story went.
Of course, there does exist an alternate universe where Trump entered the race, cobbled together a small percentage of GOP voters, gave everyone a good laugh and dropped out just in time to host the next season of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” This is a universe that makes sense, and it’s one that many pundits and analysts, up until Tuesday night, have been hallucinating.
But wishing Trump would go away doesn’t make it so. Why the media has been so loath to accept the truth remains an open question: It could be mere wishful thinking, an inflated belief in the power of punditry. It’s possible that the closing of regional news bureaus has cut the national commentariat off from dispatches across the country that might have shaken them up. Or maybe they’re just terrified.
Here, in any case, are some notable dispatches from that alternate universe the media wished for:
In the Land of the Blind
WaPo’s politics blog the Fix, headed up by pundit-wonk hybrid Chris Cillizza, set the tone in June with a post titled, “Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously, in one very simple chart.” In it, he urged people not to give “Trump a benefit of the doubt that he simply doesn't deserve: That a path exists for him to be president. It doesn't. Not even close.” He was still at it later in the year, with “The one big reason neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders can keep this up.” (Both Trump and Sanders saw huge gains in support over the following months.)
Cillizza, whose posts usually package the latest common wisdom as a contrarian counterintuitive, now publishes articles with headlines like “Donald Trump is well on his way to the 1,237 delegates he needs to be the GOP nominee.”
The entire commentariat is going to feel a little silly when Marco Rubio wins every Republican primary.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) September 25, 2015
Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight and the loudest voice in a room full of data journalists, assured the media in November that, according to his calculations, Trump was a paper tiger. In a post titled, “Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls,” he embedded a lot of charts and data points that made the case Trump was peaking during a moment in the campaign where most voters pay no attention.
“For my money, that adds up to Trump’s chances being higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 percent,” he concluded. Trump went on to win New Hampshire and Nevada by over 20 points, and South Carolina by about 10 points.
Huffington Post, which went from writing Trump off as a joke to taking him seriously enough to append every Trump post with a racism disclaimer, has stood out even among other media outlets as particularly out of touch and sanctimonious.
The current state of HuffPost's Trump treatment is that he is derided as a "rampant xenophobe" and "racist" in a footnote on every post, for his positions on Latino immigration and the integration of Muslim Americans. These directives are defended, if not concocted, by founder and editor Arianna Huffington, who, it might be noted, herself railed against welfare, "multiculturalism" and both legal and illegal immigration during the 1990s before reimagining herself as a progressive publisher.
"I traveled around California and talked, not to former mayors and to college presidents and think-tank heads, but to real Americans who are affected by the high numbers of legal and illegal immigration," she said during a TV debate over immigration in 1996, with more than a dash of Trumpian populism.
Several writers at Vox.com, not least of all founder and editor Ezra Klein, have predicted Trump’s inevitable collapse. Just last month, Klein wrote : “[T]his is, I think, what will happen to Trump. He will lead until he doesn't.”
“Trump could just ... not win. He could lose the Iowa caucuses. He could fall short in New Hampshire. A loss in any early state might lead to a loss in every state,” Klein wrote.
Considering Trump’s initial loss in Iowa, Klein’s hunch is the exact opposite of what happened.
On Wednesday, Klein took to Twitter to promote a Vox piece detailing the “unexpected rise of Donald Trump.” (One passage stands out: “Every sensible political scientist and pundit was sure that Donald Trump would fade.”)
Reminder: Donald Trump is not going to win the Republican presidential nomination.
— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) September 10, 2015
Another Vox maven, David Roberts, has published several pieces defending his ongoing faith that Trump cannot possibly win, with the typical assurance of “explainer journalism.” Still, posts like “Yes, Donald Trump will implode. Here’s why,” have given way to more defensive headlines like, “Why I still believe Donald Trump will never be president.”
One Vox prediction that can’t go unmentioned was that Trump’s rise would actually solidify Jeb Bush as the Republican nominee. “In addition to the fact that Trump poses no threat to actually win the Republican nomination, the purported billionaire helpfully sucks up all the media oxygen so none of Bush's potentially more dangerous rivals can get any attention.”
Of course, if any single candidate ended up smothered by Trump’s ubiquitous, weathered face, it was Bush, who eventually became such a joke that Vox published a post rounding up his saddest moments on the campaign.
Fox News, meanwhile, futilely hypes establishment favorite Sen. Marco Rubio, who hasn't won a single primary — unless you count coming in second by double-digits as a "win," as Fox's national correspondent did when speaking to Megyn Kelly Tuesday night.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) February 24, 2016
The Second Act
There are, frankly, too many other examples to cite, ranging from conservative ideologues at Redstate (“Keep Calm, It Won’t Be Trump”) to professional centrists like National Journal’s Ron Fournier. Puckish neoconservative and frequent “Morning Joe” panelist Bill Kristol has been literally tweeting “#PeakTrump” for half a year. There have been rumblings of Trump’s demise from bloggers at Slate to the lords of longform at The New Yorker. “First acts are famously easy to pull off,” wrote Ryan Lizza, doubting that Trump would manage to follow up with a second.
“Perhaps Trump can keep the first act going a little longer, but it is far more likely,” Lizza wrote, “that he hasn’t a clue how to move beyond the bluster and bromides that initially seized our attention. The curtain may come down soon.”
But after New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — this is the second act. And Trump is still the leading man.