Right now I'm over at the New York Times op-ed page and I see Ross Douthat confessing, among other things, that he misjudged the Republican establishment:
The more time you spend complaining about a given feature of the political or cultural landscape, the more you can come to take its power and permanence for granted, to imagine that its decadence must be too resilient to overthrow.Give the Republicans this much: They called Trump out on his deviations from GOP orthodoxy throughout the primaries -- it just didn't work, because the voters wanted to believe in him so badly they were willing to put up with a few heresies (and in some cases they didn't care about the orthodoxy at all). Those voters were also fed up with GOP pols who had passed all the litmus tests but hadn't repealed Obamacare, blocked gay marriage, repealed all taxes, and sent every Democrat to the gulags.
In the case of the G.O.P., that decadence was the party’s “Reagan yesterday, Reagan today, Reagon forever” commitments, which seemed to me misguided but powerfully entrenched, so that an assault on party orthodoxy as frontal as the one that Trump mounted would eventually forge a defensive unity among the party’s politicians and ideological enforcers.
... But ... from the talk radio dial to the halls of Congress to Fox News, Trump’s assault revealed that the party’s would-be statesmen were mostly hollow men and its enforcers were mostly ratings-hungry cynics. I had thought that the G.O.P. was run by true believers in a dated catechism. But really it was run by people for whom the Reaganite catechism only mattered because they controlled the inquisition, and once Trump’s army of heretics refused to disperse they had no stomach for a fight.
Eventually, though, establishment Republicans realized that there was no reason to fight Trump if he'd agree to deliver on the issues they really care about: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, and the appointment of litmus-test-conservative judges who'd rule for the wealthy in perpetuity (and against non-whites, LGBT people, abortion seekers, and gun-control advocates). Once it was clear he'd give them all that, they stopped fighting and climbed on the Trump train. Douthat ignores the obvious here: on 80% of issues, a Trump presidency will be exactly like a Scott Walker presidency. Once that was clear to the establishmentarians, why fight?
Nicholas Kristof, for his part, calls out the media:
In 2008, the three broadcast networks, in their nightly news programs, devoted over the entire year a total of three hours and 40 minutes to issues reporting (defined as independent coverage of election issues, not arising from candidate statements or debates). In 2016, that plummeted to a grand total of just 36 minutes.Yes, I fault the coverage of Trump as spectacle, as well as the lack of non-campaign-related issue reporting. But one of the major things that made Trump's victory possible was the way journalists talked about issues with respect to Trump.
ABC and NBC had just nine minutes of issues coverage each; CBS had 18 minutes. So ABC and NBC each had less than one minute of issues coverage per month in 2016.
Those figures come from Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report monitors the news programs. By Tyndall’s measures, there was zero independent coverage in 2016 on those nightly programs about poverty, climate change or drug addiction.
“Journalists were confronted with the spectacle of an issues-free campaign,” Tyndall told me. “They had to decide how to react: with complicity, since such tactics were easy to shoehorn into the ratings-pleasing entertainment structure of a reality TV show, or with defiance, by delving into what was at stake.”
They chose the former, he says, and “treated their viewers not as citizens, but as so many pairs of eyeballs.”
No matter how right-wing Trump's rhetoric was, we were told we couldn't really tell whether he'd govern as the Fox News wingnut he's clearly become or would revert to his old centrism (and liberalism on a few issues). Even when he issued a list of possible court picks thoroughly vetted by purist right-wing groups, we were told he might have just done that for show. Even when he issued a Paul Ryanesque budget plan, we were told he might be a secret liberal on social programs.
Maybe it's impossible to report on Republican presidential candidates properly because for years they've all wanted to blow massive holes in the social safety net while making the rich richer and less accountable, but they don't say that's what they want, so the press feels obligated to treat what they say as reflecting their true beliefs. When the typical Republican says he wants to "preserve and defend" Social Security or Medicare, reporters feel they have to assume at least some good faith, even if they've read the GOP budget that gives the lie to such assertions. In 2015 and 2016, reporters extended this courtesy to Trump, even though he's one of the greatest bullshit artists in human history. And so his even more grandiose claims -- that he wouldn't even touch Social Security or Medicare, and that he'd replace Obamacare with something so amazing it would make beneficiaries' head spin -- were allowed to stand.
The press should assume that any compassionate words coming out of the mouth of a Republican are lies. I know that's too much to ask, but couldn't we have had a bit more skepticism about an unusually flagrant liar?