Donald the Disrupter: Trump is the presidential campaign’s bright, shiny object

REUTERS/Dominick Reuter
You can’t ignore a guy who’s leading in the polls, but it’s truly a challenge to corral Donald Trump coverage into the old norms.

There’s an old saying used to indoctrinate new Army recruits that there are three ways to do anything: a right way, a wrong way and an Army way. (They were supposed to always do it the Army way.)

Young journalists receive (or used to, anyway) a similar, if less explicit, indoctrination that teaches them to do things the journalism way, without asking themselves whether it’s also the right way. The old version of the journalism way, the way that I came up as an ink-stained wretch, has broken down quite a bit in the age of the blog and the podcast and even of Fox News, which is part of the “mainstream media,” but not really, not in the old way.

Still, at a big news event covered by the mainstream, most of the mainstream folks pretty much agree on what questions should be asked and what parts of the answers are “interesting” or “important” enough to be included in the story. (“Interesting” and “important” are huge in the norms of journalism, almost as if there is some definitive way to define “interesting” or “important” in the context of a complicated news story.)

The latest Big Disrupter of the norms is the Donald. Donald Trump lacks the usual credentials of a presidential candidate, but that’s not a sin. Abe Lincoln had the weakest conventional résumé of any president. Trump is startlingly immodest, but what the heck, the public pose of modesty by many typical politicians is probably carefully constructed based on the belief — obviously not shared by Trump — that voters dislike blowhard braggarts. You can call Trump boorish — I have — and I think, all other considerations being equal, we’re better off with a president with decent manners.

But I could forgive his manners and his ego if he would do the main thing I most require of a candidate. He won’t take positions, not real ones, on most issues. As best I know, his campaign has so far posted one position paper, on “immigration,” which raises quite a few questions that he won’t answer.

(For example, it was in this paper that he introduced the idea of ending “birthright citizenship,” which is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The two sentences devoted to this idea in his position paper don’t acknowledge the obvious problem that birthright citizenship appears pretty clearly to be guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Here’s the rather clear sentence from the amendment itself [which means, from the U.S. Constitution itself]: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The Supreme Court, in a landmark 1898 case, interpreted that to mean what it appears to plainly say, that a baby born on U.S. soil, even if to noncitizen parents, is a U.S. citizen, forever. When Trump is told that he is advocating something that would be unconstitutional, he tends to say that he knows some very smart lawyers who disagree, and there the matter dies, with Trump apparently winning admirers among nativist Americans with a position that has almost no chance of becoming law.)  

Trump and norms of journalism

Still, Trump is a big story or, as he might modestly put it, “huge. The hugest ever.” You can’t ignore a guy who’s leading in the polls, but it’s truly a challenge to corral Trump coverage into the old norms. He won’t play the part of a normal candidate.

He is engaged, at any given moment, in 20 or 30 feuds with his opponents or critics or even with journalists — most notably in recent Trump lore, with Megyn Kelly of Fox News for asking him allegedly unfair questions at the big debate.

And before you know it, instead of insisting that he answer some of the obvious, basic questions raised by his half-baked policy ideas, you are writing about Trump’s statements about which parts of Kelly’s body were allegedly emitting blood at which moment in Trump’s metaphorical imagination.

One of the latest examples was captured beautifully by a guy named Leon Wolf. Wolf is not a normed-up journalist. He blogs for Red State (which is a righty blog that doesn’t ♥ the Donald). Wolf’s recent “diary” entry, about a Trump media event, therefore has the advantage of freeing him to make observations about both Trump’s skills as a disrupter and the journalist’s difficulty in dealing with it. It begins:

Donald Trump just held a press conference prior to a speech in Iowa which was – and I say this without exaggeration — the most bizarre thing I have seen in a lifetime of following politics. It was at once an illustration of why the media fixates on him, and also why the other candidates in the race cannot deal with him.

He opened the conference by yelling at Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who he claimed asked a question without being called on. He continued to yell at Ramos at some length about being out of turn, then turned to one of his campaign staffers, nodded, and pointed at Ramos, whereupon the staffer removed Ramos from the conference. (Note: I would have zero problem on principle with throwing Ramos out of a press conference on the merits).

The next reporter’s question, naturally, was, “Why did you have him thrown out?” Amazingly, Trump responded to this question, I’m not kidding, by answering, “I didn’t have him thrown out, you’ll have to ask security, whoever they are.” When reporters pressed him with the obvious fact that the person who had him removed was on his staff (he appeared to be wearing a Trump button even, but I can’t swear to that), he immediately changed his tune to say that it was because the reporter was a “highly emotional person,” with no mention of the fact that 30 seconds earlier he had been denying that he had Ramos thrown out at all.

As you might expect, coverage of the event has been dominated by the opening ejection of Ramos, which feeds into about seven other of the currently hot Trump-the-crazy-scourge-of-Latinos narratives, but most of the coverage showed little interest in the fact that Trump’s own explanation of how Ramos’ ejection had come about had changed within one minute from I-had-nothing-to-do-with-it to I-had a-valid-reason-to-do-it. In his own summation of how this illustrates the Trump Phenomenon, Red Stater Wolf writes:

When a politician goofs once, it’s easy for that to get stuck in the feedback loop of the media and other candidates.

Watching Donald Trump speak and answer questions, though, is like watching a billion targets appear in the sky all at once, for a political opponent. Each thing he says is so bizarre, or ill informed, or demonstrably false, or unpresidential in tone or character, that it becomes impossible to know which target to lock on to or focus on. And to the extent that he makes a policy statement, it is so hopelessly vague and ludicrous that it’s impossible to know where to begin, at least within the context of the 30-second soundbite that the modern political consumer requires (and chances are, he will say something diametrically opposed to it before the press conference is over anyway).

Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things — yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.

By the way, from the nothing-is-simple department, I should mention in fairness to Trump that later in the same event, Ramos was allowed back in. And he had an extensive exchange with Trump. Ramos has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America.” But he didn’t behave much like Cronkite at this event. After he asked Trump a question and Trump started to answer, Ramos kept interrupting within a few syllables of Trump’s answer to argue with it. I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but Trump seemed extremely patient on this round, which went on for quite a while. But nothing was accomplished because Ramos kept interrupting.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/27/2015 - 10:25 am.

    Was Ramos interrupting

    to try to get Trump to actually answer his questions?

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/27/2015 - 10:41 am.

    Objects

    The Donald and the way he is covered prompts the question, “How should we cover the other objects in the race who are neither shiny nor particularly bright?”

    Is Trump really a less plausible candidate than Jeb Bush, a long ago ex governor whose major qualification for the presidency seems to be that he is on a first name basis with big money donors?

    Or Marco Rubio, a one term senator who preaches financial austerity for the rest of us, while being personally unable to control his household spending?

    Or Scott Walker who wants to extend to the nation the policies that are driving his own state’s economy in the ground?

    Say what you will about Donald Trump, unlike any of the other Republican candidates in the race, he is a remarkable person with vastly more personal experience in the affairs of this nation than any of them. Politicians and pundits who have dismissed him because he is very bright and very shiny have been wrong in the past , and might very well continue to be wrong in the future.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/27/2015 - 05:11 pm.

      I wasn’t aware

      that the affairs of this nation involved dealing in real estate.
      But maybe he employed lobbyists.
      I suppose that his penchant for marrying immigrants might count, though.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/27/2015 - 10:45 am.

    The political equivalent of chaff

    The purpose of chaff is to fool the radar scanning the aircraft or naval vessel that’s using it (and the operator who’s using that radar) into thinking that the chaff is the *real* target, when in fact, the actual target is somewhere else. In a political context, chaff is, or at least seems likely to be, an illusion, which fits with much of the rest of Mr. Wolf’s commentary, as quoted in Eric’s piece.

    As the headline for the piece plainly states, Mr. Trump is the presidential campaign’s bright, shiny object – the sort of thing upon which many gaze in fascination, some in genuine interest, and then our attention, individually and collectively, turns elsewhere. At least that’s my hope.

    He’s a less-diplomatic, less-intellectual, less-polite, and far less attractive (in several ways) version of Michele Bachmann. For history buffs, he’s a less-well-educated Louis XIV in the age when lots of people, including, of course, the rulers themselves, believed quite sincerely in the divine right of kings. Arrogance is a personality trait that he wears like an expensive (Is there any other kind?) suit, and he demonstrably appeals to the ugliest instincts of his disciples regarding race, social and economic class, and the value of careful thought. For the nation’s sake, I personally hope for the rapid demise of his campaign.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/27/2015 - 12:38 pm.

      “expensive (Is there any other kind?) suit”

      Yes, there is also the “cheap suit”, the kind worn by those journalists who jostle with one another to be the one who destroys Trump’s candidacy, now that they have placed it in the spotlight to the near-exclusion of all other candidacies. They’d like to share that spotlight.

      Likewise, the GOP, itself the creator of these Frankensteins – Michelle Bachmann, and now Trump – recoils in horror, but not because they’ve suddenly discovered the lowbrow deep prejudices of their party’s membership, but rather because it is on public display. It was supposed to be kept to the sidelines.

      Michelle Bachmann antics and ignorance brought disrepute to the GOP. Donald Trump could make things much worse. For example, if you’re Latino, and if the GOP were NOW to proclaim how they’re all about advocating for Latinos – would you believe them ??

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/27/2015 - 12:47 pm.

      I agree

      With all that Mr. Schoch has to say; but, I did watch the encounter with Mr. Ramos, before and after his return, and it was fascinating to watch a Presidential candidate engage in a prolonged, unscripted, back and forth on an issue. And while Ramos was mostly confrontational and Trump nonsensical, the idea of any other candidate actually doing this is extremely unlikely: they are all so scripted and carefully handled we never get to see their un-managed side. With Trump that is all you see and it is the reason for his success with followers who just want someone, anyone, who is different from the 16 others vying for the nomination. He certainly is different and I think he won’t be going away soon and when he does it will be spectacular because teary concession speeches congratulating the victor are not in his playbook: he will leave because of some victory he has gained through his campaign and all of the American people need to thank him for this contribution to the country.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/27/2015 - 12:12 pm.

    The base

    I shouldn’t really project a lot into my Republican friends but I do. Lots of Republicans feel the same way about things as Bachmann, and Trump does what Bachmann does a lot better. Four years ago Republicans nominated Romney who is neither bright nor shiny, because events played out in such away that the conservative vote in his party was split, such that he had only one prominent conservative to contend with at a time. If conservatives had been able to coalesce around one candidate early in the process, the outcome could quite possibly be different. What I am wondering is whether conservatives are doing at this point in the process what they were unable to do last time around; unifying early behind a candidate they like and identify and not the candidate who they mere tolerate but who the pundits assure them can win. Romney was the pundit approved candidate last time around and the result was four more years of President Obama.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/27/2015 - 05:08 pm.

      Is that why

      Bachmann got 2% of the vote in Iowa?
      Trump may be better than Bachmann at throwing tantrums, but he doesn’t provide the specifics that she did. You can call that a strength — nothing concrete to disagree with or refute, but unlike Bachmann he has never been elected to a public office. He’s only better at being outrageous.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/27/2015 - 06:14 pm.

    A signpost on the way to today….

    From 2004

    ….The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”….

    The Republican party–proud rejection of discernible reality

  6. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 08/27/2015 - 08:08 pm.

    Frank Luntz

    Republican pollster and wordsmith extraordinaire did a focus group with Trump supporters, they told him that they like him because, get this, they see him as honest, telling it like it is. They see Donald Trump, one of America’s leading hucksters, the man who built an empire on bullshit as honest. That tells you all you need to know about his supporters.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 08/27/2015 - 08:50 pm.

    Talking about Radar

    Yep suppose the Donald has some issues, but putting Tax Fairness on the Republican Radar screen as a topic; good bad or otherwise that is a real breath of fresh air! will be real interesting how the rest of the fleet address that gaffe!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/28/2015 - 11:06 am.

      Republican Tax Fairness

      It wasn’t a gaffe. Tax fairness does not mean the same thing to Republicans as it does to the rest of us. Generally, they define the term as a flat tax rate, a “simplified” tax with fewer rates as well as fewer deductions or credits, or a national sales tax. Needless to say, none of these would increase the tax on the wealthiest.

  8. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 08/27/2015 - 10:12 pm.

    Lincoln unqualified?

    “Abe Lincoln had the weakest conventional résumé of any president.”

    You’ve got to be kidding. Lincoln was first elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1934 and served six terms until 1846 when he was elected to the US House. In 1854 he helped found the Republican party and engaged in national debates years before he was elected president. By training, he was a lawyer, which is one of the best careers to prepare you for politics. Why do you think they’re called “lawmakers”? If you want to pick on someone with an “weak resume,” how about George Washington? Merely the military leader of a successful rebellion, but with no electoral experience. What is your criteria for a “weak resume”?

  9. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/27/2015 - 10:59 pm.

    If Mr. Trump is the shiny object

    Does that make the media all crows?

  10. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/28/2015 - 02:28 pm.

    Chaff

    I agree entirely with the frustration in dealing with Trump here. My big question is how in the world do we move past it? Should an interviewer try to just nail him down on one topic repeatedly until they get a complete coherent answer? Would he then get bored and decide to leave politics? (That’s probably too wishful.)
    What’s the end game here?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/28/2015 - 07:08 pm.

      The nominating conventions

      Until then he’ll continue to get free publicity.
      After he loses the Republican nomination he’ll either quit and end his political career,
      or form a third party and end the Republican party.
      Either way, end of game.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/28/2015 - 07:21 pm.

      If he were the Republican nominee and Clinton was his opponent, would you vote for him?

      Your answer is indicative of the end game.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/29/2015 - 08:06 am.

        No

        Easy answer. If the election next November is Trump vs Clinton, then I sit that one out or vote third party (which is as useful as sitting it out). Very simply, he won’t be elected in my name.

        That’s not quite what I was trying to ask though. I’m wondering how the media can pin Trump down. Maybe they can’t. It seems that some of his appeal is in taking on the media and their judgments on what is ‘important’. Anyone one who makes them look like fools, will keep getting that rush.
        So, could they just slow down and ask him for endless clarifications on the same point? Would that do any good?

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/29/2015 - 10:12 am.

          This is the problem of the Republican establishment:

          If it appears that the majority of GOP likely voters, would vote for a ring-tailed baboon if nominated, and pulling in new GOP voters that are enthusiastic about the spectacle, plus bring in cross-over voters, ala Ventura and Belusconi, and it seems that they actually have a good shot of winning against damaged goods, that’s an end game on the way to the White House.

          The more embedded Trump and his views become as an electoral possibility, the more likely a later dis-enthronement of Trump will result in a divided GOP with a disenchanted/deactivated base for the general election. There comes a time when Trump will be the nominee, or at least the king-maker at the convention and throwing him out of the cart will damage the prospects of the party. The days of the smoke-filled rooms at the convention are over–imagine how that sort of opaque process would go over in a group that is already primed against such actions. The longer Trump dominates the scene, and this is the endgame, the more likely that the Democratic candidate wins the general election.

          As it is, the remainder of the field now looks pallid against Trump’s vividness and the month’s long primary campaigning will only heighten the lack of “excitement” in the field. I really think that the GOP has embedded a culture of knowledge and competence do not matter, and a disrespect for discernible reality and the recent unseriousness of GOP candidates means that Trump is a perfectly valid presidential candidate.

          The real worry for the GOP comes after the election, if there is a President Trump. I don’t think Trump will sit quietly while decisions are made by the old boys and regular policy analysts that are waiting in the wings for the next GOP president. The Donald will be the ultimate “decider” and who knows which of 10 ways that will swing on every issue. He may be a loud-mouthed ass much of the time but he also is very underinformed and prone to make raid, unfortunate decisions.

          Nothimg but trouble for the GOP as a brand..

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/29/2015 - 10:30 am.

          ..endless clarifications…

          If there was a culture of pinning down politicians for specific answers to specific questions, then possibly yes.

          There is no politician out there right now that will sit through a prosecutorial interrogation.

          In the absence of such a habit, a single media outlet doing so would be shunned by the politicians, and if someone were singled out for such treatment, would be dismissed as attack journalism (that’s a big positive in these days of imaginary harassment).

          Any politician, or a world-class BS artist, has enough hot air to fill the ordinary Sunday morning Q&A or a debate with multiple opponents.

          There are few, if any, follow-up questions anywhere.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/29/2015 - 08:10 pm.

          The question is not the media

          It’s readers and viewers (and if he gets that far, the voters).
          If the media reports his non-answers, it’s up to the voters to decide whether there’s anything there to vote for. We must decide who is the fool: Trump or the media.

  11. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/29/2015 - 03:55 pm.

    But Mr. Trump

    Isn’t the only candidate that avoids being pinned down. Answers are meant to not turn possible voters off, not necessarily gain them. Senator Klobuchar is great at being for both sides of an issue which explains why in Minnesota people urge her to run for President. Once a candidate has a position set down on paper and in stone, they lose 50% of their possible support and no candidate wants to risk that, except maybe for Ted Cruz or Rand Paul.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/31/2015 - 09:33 am.

      They All Do It!

      Again, the great nihilistic catchphrase of American politics. We can avoid passing judgment on any politician because, whatever it is, they all do it.

      Frankly, as red herrings go, it’s starting to lose its resonance.

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