What Can Make Trump Fail

Can the media, doing its job, show voters the fatal flaws of their hero?

Source: Bloomberg via Getty Images/Axios

Despite scores of news stories about his astonishing legal woes, Donald J. Trump seems likely to coast in on a smooth glidepath to the Republican nomination for president. As the National Review noted, he is polling above 60 percent nationally and leads the field by 30 points in Iowa, where caucusing takes place Monday night.

In the face of his four indictments, 91 criminal charges and two impeachments, his supporters seem only to rally behind him. They seem persuaded by his claims that he is a victim of persecution, much as they feel victimized by the economic, racial, ethnic and social change he seems to stand against – he is their King Canute.

A short time ago, The Wall Street Journal ran “Trump’s Businesses Got Millions From Foreign Governments While He Was President,” a piece detailing how various governments enriched him with official stays in his hotels in Las Vegas and Washington and spending at his New York properties. When I posted a link to it on Facebook, a journalist friend sadly wrote: “Story after story, year after year, decade after decade, yet no legal team can put TFG away,” wrote BusinessWeek veteran Joan Warner. “From tax evasion to misuse of funds to election tampering to insurrection to rape, he gets away with is. The one truthful thing he ever said was that he could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make a difference. He was right.”

The disdain Trump’s supporters feel for the legal system is mind-boggling, of course, as is the system’s seeming inability to nail him (even as a clutch of his underlings, deserted by him, have been jailed or face criminal charges). Equally unsettling, though, is the disregard among the MAGA faithful for journalistic work that that has illuminated his perfidy – before, during and after his presidency.

Source: The Washington Post

Story after story seems to roll off their backs or, bizarrely, to deepen their enthusiasm for him. Are they simply not paying attention? Or, worse, do these pieces just entrench the idea that the elites – in the “fake news” media that Trump derides to great effect – are just unfairly coming after their hero again?

For journalists, the question arises: does any of that painstaking, diligent work make any difference? Indeed, might be it counterproductive?

Back when Trump was spreading lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace, researchers described the “backfire” effect. As NPR put it in a 2010 piece, this was the idea that “we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly.” University of Michigan researcher Brendan Nyhan, who did much of this work, said “it’s threatening to us to admit that things we believe are wrong.” And the way people – both liberals and conservatives – deal with the cognitive dissonance of facts versus beliefs is to “buttress that belief that they initial held.”

Of course, it helps if one can find media outlets that reinforce such beliefs. In the case of Trump, think Fox News, Newsmax, conservative talk radio and the like. They stand in counterpose to legitimate media, feeding their audiences a steady pro-Trump diet that flies in the fast of the steady anti-Trump coverage of the mainstream folks.

Source: YouTube

And then, of course, there are Trump’s own blasts on social media. One of his most recent jaw-droppers is a reposted video, “God Gave Us Trump,” made by a group of his supporters and featuring the AI-created voice of Paul Harvey, a voice that would resonate in MAGA world. While a bright person might think this a parody, it’s anything but. Trump followed that with a birther attack on Nikki Haley, reposting a piece that claims she’s not a citizen, even though she was born in South Carolina, because her parents were immigrants. With that, he attacks perhaps his most palatable rival – one who polls better against Biden than Trump does – and smears immigrants, all in one fell swoop.

But there is reason to believe that continuing revelations about Trump’s shortcomings, along with the legal actions, could undo him. He may sail into the GOP nomination because so much of the party has been highjacked by the far right, but his luck in a national race could run as dry as his bankrupt casinos of old if the media continue to highlight his canyon-deep flaws. The best evidence, of course, is President Biden’s election in 2020. While Trump drew an amazing 74.2 million votes in that race, Biden still bested him with nearly 81.3 million. And the Electoral College tally was an impressive 306 for Biden to just 232 for Trump.

Back then, the media had reported for years about the legion of missteps by Trump in the White House. And in the election coverage, journalists delivered a nonstop barrage of coverage of his dismayingly broad array of problems. The media there clearly made a difference, as they did in the midterm elections in which Trump-backed candidates fell hard.

So, will the media tip the scales again? Well, a sharp new focus on the perversions to our system Trump is likely to deliver if elected may help. Publications such as The Atlantic have drawn attention to how much damage he could do to institutions ranging from the military and regulatory agencies to law enforcement. The New York Times has opened a window on what he and his minions plan, from wielding the Justice Department to attack his enemies to upending trade policy.

More such coverage of life under Trump 2.0 may stir up more Biden support, even if it doesn’t peel away Trump backing, going forward (Trump’s fans don’t read such publications, it would seem). Indeed, it would seem unlikely that the Trump base will shrink (it had grown from 62.96 million votes in 2016), unless reports are true that many of his backers would flee him if he were convicted of crimes.

Seeing him hauled off to jail may rally his most diehard backers, perhaps dangerously so, a la Jan. 6. But that could strip away some of the less deluded among his crowds. Of course, he’s doing his best to delay trials that could lead to such convictions, betting that he could quash the federal efforts, at least, if elected.

But what remains puzzling is just why so many people continue to back him. His railings against immigrants and minorities, his barely concealed white supremacism, his disdain for globalism and his thumb-your-nose views of coastal elites all seem to find traction among his devotees, overriding his yawning gaps. His personal immorality continues to be a non-issue for evangelicals who see him as their deliverer.

No matter how much economic stability and restored global influence Biden brings, these other matters seem to make Trump unassailable among many of his supporters. Why is he their avatar, their flagbearer?

Source: Facebook

Part of his appeal seems to lay in the simple ignorance that seems widespread among his backers. He has long been cherished by the under-educated and our system of primaries seems to turn heavily on them. As The New York Times reported, college-educated people have long been deserting such important primary states as Iowa and other states in the Upper Midwest, leaving behind those Hillary Clinton memorably described as a “basket of deplorables.” Such folks may read little of anything, in fact.

More troubling, part of his success has to do with flaws in our version of democracy. Recall that Clinton actually beat him by a fair number of popular votes in 2016, garnering nearly 3 million more votes at 65.8 million nationwide. But she lost the Electoral College vote 306-232 because that probably outdated institution gives more power to voters in small states than they deserve. Indeed, there continues to be a sharp media focus on so-called swing states, as intelligent cries for abolition of the Electoral College continue to go unheeded.

Moreover, the two-party system puts the choice of our presidential contenders in the hands of an astonishingly small number of people. As a Brookings Institution commentator broke down the figures, some 10,000 people – split between 8,567 delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions and the members of the parties’ national committees – choose the two contenders, the only real prizefighters in these elections. Most of those folks are representative of primary voter choices, of course, but those primary voters are always a fraction of the general electorate.

There remains hope that enough people can be persuaded – either in the primaries or in the general election – that we will be denied the continued hauntings of this supremely vindictive racist narcissist in the fall. Democracy, at least our flawed form of it, could prevail. It’s possible that even the legal system will rise to the occasion, despite him playing it like a fiddle.

Source: Partisan Issues

What of the media’s role and effectiveness? More recent research about the “backfire effect” suggests that even deeply held beliefs may not be set in concrete. As researcher Nyhan put it, “corrective information is typically at least somewhat effective at increasing belief accuracy….” Misperceptions may persist for years, but he suggests that carefully targeting information and breaking what he calls the linkage between group identities and false claims can be effective.

In other words, if the Trumpists begin to see him as a failure, his hold on them may slip. We can only hope he fails in the courts, in time, and in some key primaries, and that the media can drive home word of such slipups. By shooting straight with honest decisions and reporting about a man who reviles them, judges, juries and journalists can make a difference, but all have their work cut out for them.