Five "Truths" about the US Political Circus Non-Americans Should Question
As an American academic living in Europe, I am often asked by journalists to offer my opinion about what is going on with US politics, Trump and the media. A number of issues regularly crop up during these discussions that suggest a somewhat blinkered view of events. Here are five issues ("truths") that I think are worth considering in a more critical fashion.
Truth #1: "Trump is revolutionizing US politics…"
A recent editorial in the Washington Post argued that the success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election cycle is evidence that money, while clearly important in US politics, is not everything. The editorial was half right. It is hard to see how a self-funding billionaire, famous for his role in reality television, is in any way a poster-child for the decreasing power of money in US politics. A billionaire buying his way to the Presidency is no less bound to the interests of capital than a millionaire like Hillary Clinton getting corporations to help her buy her way to the Presidency. Either way, the Presidency is for sale. This is why Bernie Sanders is far more revolutionary than Trump: a candidate with no personal wealth, and no Super Political Action Committee ("Super PAC") money, is mounting a serious challenge against a candidate (Clinton) who has massive financial support from US corporations. That's the story.
Truth #2: "Trump is getting ahead with no advertising…"
Trump is a ratings goldmine. Trump knows it. The media know it. And the figures on the levels of media coverage given to Trump show it. Yet, when the negative influence of money on US politics is discussed, the conversation is often limited to campaign finance, and not to things like media profit margins. Trump's ability to forego expensive advertising might be revolutionary to political pundits, but it's entirely rational…if not utterly banal. Trump has leveraged his personal and cultural capital (wealth, celebrity and outrageousness) into free coverage, and a salivating corporate US media have obliged. In this sense, US media act like the contributors Trump proudly announces that he does not have: corporations donating valuable resources to his cause in the expectation of financial reward. This is also where the notion of Sanders and Trump as somehow linked by their financial "outsider" status falls apart: Sanders still has traction (and is winning states) despite a media that finds his message of solidarity and equality unsexy and unappealing. Trump, on the other hand, is being pumped acres of media oxygen despite message that is vile, juvenile and offensive…because it gets eyeballs. Trump may not be buying ads, but he is still getting them.
Truth #3: "Trump is the creation of right-wing media like Fox News…"
With the media over-exposure I have just mentioned, it is easy to blame outlets like Fox News as key culprits the rise of Donald Trump. In fact, for pundits and journalists in the US it's convenient to do so, as these outlets deflect attention away from the historical failure of the US news media to engage in critical analyses of politics, as well as a willingness on the part of US journalism to push the nationalist/patriotism card when it suits them to do so. The road Donald Trump now drives upon was paved many years ago by a US news media that championed shallow horse-race coverage of elections devoid of substantive analysis of policy. And, the fact that Trump's blatant racism and Islamophobia is resonating cannot be divorced from decades of media coverage in which the wholesale slaughter of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen as a direct result of US military action (and sanctions) was not only not investigated, but actively cheer-led by the news media.
Truth #4: "The Democrats are a progressive alternative to Republicans…"
The desire on the part of the international press to understand US politics as "left versus right" leads to a dangerous misrepresentation of the Democrats. US politics is center-right and far-right. To take the most obvious argument: if we assume that what you are willing to do abroad cannot be seen as irrelevant to your political ideology, post-9/11 Democratic politics is anything but progressive. Support for the occupation and destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, support for the killing of civilians in drone strikes, rearming Israel as it killed civilians in Gaza? These are not the hallmarks of leftist politics. Progressivism is not a zero-sum game where you offset hawkish militarism abroad with mildly progressive politics at home. Unless, that is, you believe that human life somehow has less value in Baghdad than it does in Boston. And, domestically, there is another clear example: it's hard to see how a party whose leading candidate does not support the abolition of the death penalty — considered barbaric in most developed democracies — can pass itself off as progressive. So, yes, the Democrats are to the left of Trump…but that's hardly difficult.
Truth #5: "Trump is about harnessing citizen anger and disaffection with politics…"
This is likely true…but Trump is also about harnessing xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism. A good place to start is to watch Van Jones tear apart Donald Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord on CNN in what has become an iconic moment in this election cycle. The interaction came after 6 or 7 hours of coverage by CNN where racism and Islamophobia was not addressed. The fact that it took an African-American to bring it up at the end of the evening is an indictment of a mainstream US press that has not addressed Trump's racism in a substantive manner.