It’s open season on Donald Trump. The American election has become like some old Loony Tunes cartoon in which the annual duck hunt opens with a turn of a sign followed, a fraction of a second later, by gun barrels popping out from every bush. The sky above Washington is suddenly filled with buckshot and Daffy Duck’s feathers.
If you’ve read any of your morning papers, you’ll think that Donald Trump has lost his mind. He might well have but, equally, he might not. We are in a strange place at the moment. There’s a narrative being driven by a media who are entirely hostile to Trump. It’s backed by the Democrats and many Republicans, as well as the US late night talk show circuit and the entirety of liberal America who have it in for Trump. The message has gone out that they must stop Trump and you might even argue they have good reason. From their point of view, Trump is a modern Elmer Fudd holding his shotgun backwards. Except for a shotgun, he’s holding America’s nuclear arsenal…
For the record: I do happen to think that Donald Trump is unsuited to the presidency, not least because it’s becoming quite obvious that he simply doesn’t want the job. Anybody who has ever been forced to apply for a job they don’t want will recognise the signs. ‘Do you like working with the public,’ a young version of myself was once asked. ‘Of course, I do,’ I replied, ‘as long as they don’t taunt me… I don’t like it when they taunt…’
Trump has looked like a candidate who wants to throw the election from the moment he began to think he might just win at the end of the Republican nomination process. Something odd happened and Trump’s rhetoric hardened, despite popular wisdom suggesting it would soften. Did he suddenly realise how the highest office of in the land might affect his golf swing? Rumours have circulated that potential VPs were being lured to Trump’s side by the chance of getting the keys to the Oval Office. It’s likely that a Trump victory would see Mike Pence become de facto President as Trump himself became the USA’s first Emperor.
Yet even if Trump is throwing it, losing it, or even potentially winning it, nothing excuses the media’s current bloodlust. They believe that nobody in their right mind would defend Trump so they have slipped into hunting mode, moving in packs, and driving their quarry to the edge of the cliff. It might be deservedly cruel and befitting the worst candidate to have made it to the last stages of an American election but the danger now is to the media itself.
Trump needs and deserves no defence. What I’m arguing is really a defence of journalism. Broad brushstrokes, comic flourishes, and character assassinations are all perfectly reasonable modes of political analysis so long as it doesn’t entail the entire Fourth Estate acting like a lynch mob. This past week Trump has either out-Trumped himself or been simply the same Trump we’ve seen over the course of the long Republican nomination process. It’s hard to know which. Too much of the current coverage feels like schoolyard bullying in which the object of the bullying seems almost deserving of the approbation of their peers. Of course, no bullying is justified but the worst bullying can sometimes feel like that. There’s always one unfortunate scapegoat, one standalone rebel who doesn’t follow the fashion of the rest and attract scorns because they have the strength of character to remain true to themselves.
Trump is a rebel, of sorts, and he obvious does things to attract criticism. His campaign is struggling and there’s every sign that it might fail long before November. Yet the media should be aware of how they move in for the kill, not least because they’re in danger of making Trump look like the victim.
To take one example from the past week. The mainstream media followed the lead of social media in reporting with particular glee the moment that Trump had a problem with a baby crying at one of his rallies. ‘What a baby!’ mocked MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Twitter. Rupert Cornwall in The Independent this morning said that Trump ‘even managed to pick a fight with a baby who was crying at one of his rallies’. Jonathan Freedland at The Guardian wrote a long piece about the encounter under the headline ‘Donald Trump’s treatment of a crying baby reveals his total lack of empathy’.
It’s easy to see why journalists slip into analysis mode, trying to elaborate mole hills until they become mountains. Yet perspective is important. Trump clearly tried to laugh off the baby’s crying, hoping the parent would read between the lines and take the child from the hall. (Incidentally: was I the only person to wonder what kind of parent takes a baby to a Trump rally?) When it became obvious that the child’s crying would continue to distract him, Trump became more forceful. Still trying to make a joke about it, he said ‘Actually I was only kidding. You can get the baby out of here.’ He followed this up with the ‘I think she believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand.’
This was Trump being his unpolished self; attempting to mask his lack of sophistication and experience with humour. A more practised politician would have had the etiquette to deal with it but a more practised politician would have already surrounded themselves with people who recognise when their candidate is sending out distress signals and would have moved the baby before further trouble ensued.
But did Trump really offend mothers across America by calling out a crying baby? Did it offend them more than suggestions last week that Trump questioned why America couldn’t just nuke its enemies? If mothers really did feel so offended, then America might well have far bigger problems that Donald J. Trump.