I’ve been mulling over the Huffington Post’s announcement last week that all coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign would be relegated to the Entertainment section—since “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” and the site’s political reporters “won’t take the bait.” One sympathizes: I don’t envy any journalist who cares seriously about politics and is stuck covering Trump. Nonetheless, it’s a mistake.
As Trump-related nonsense has piled up over the last few weeks, I’ve been reminded of a New Republic editorial that appeared during his last flirtation with presidential politics. Now more than four years old, it’s a reminder that Trump hasn’t changed at all. Even his popularity (at this very early stage) was the same: “he currently leads in several polls,” the editorial noted. (A poll released yesterday showed Trump leading the field, with nearly as much support as his two closest competitors combined.) In 2011, TNR warned liberals not to gloat too much about Trump—his visceral appeal was a chilling sign of the power of right-wing “anger, resentment, and victimhood,” forces to be dismissed at one’s peril. Trump might be a joke, but the sources of his popularity are no laughing matter.
Recent coverage seems to vindicate this argument. At Vox, Amanda Taub asks: “Where does this support come from? Why are some Americans drawn to this rhetoric?” For answers, Taub spoke to political scientist Deborah Schildkraut, who suggested “bad economic situations,” which lead “people to feel like they’re under siege, and almost kind of cling to their group a little more, and feel like their group is threatened.”
This raw fear helps explain why crowds didn’t boo Trump’s appalling remarks about Mexican immigrants: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. […] They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Journalists can choose to ignore Trump, but they have no control over how comments like this are received in a GOP primary. And their choice to ignore him means that accusations like this go largely unanswered, even unexamined—even though, as Robert J. Sampson recently noted in the American Prospect, most experts believe that Mexican immigrants “selectively migrate to the United States based on characteristics that predispose them to low crime, such as motivation to work and ambition,” and that immigration may well be lowering the crime rate. Choosing to treat Trump like a Kardashian means choosing to trivialize these remarks and their frightening appeal. Politicians’ views are subjected to greater skepticism and scrutiny than celebrities’ views are. When the politician in question is a race-baiting demagogue, and his popularity is on the rise, it’s precisely the wrong time to forego that scrutiny.
It’s worth noting that Trump’s notorious comments about Mexicans offer journalists a great opportunity to correct a range of misconceptions about immigration. Instead of letting Trump call the U.S. a “dumping ground” for Mexico, why not note that net migration between the two countries has fallen to zero, and perhaps even reversed? Why not report that many Mexican migrants have recently returned to their country of origin? Conservatives prefer arguments over immigration to stop at the border: if you’re not allowed to enter, that’s that. End of discussion. This focus on border security has the appeal of simplicity, but the reality is, of course, more complicated: immigration is not just about those trying to enter, but about those who have settled, who have become a part of American society but are still at risk of removal. Acknowledging that reality—shifting the focus from those trying to enter to those now residing—complicates the simple law-and-order conversation that GOP candidates would vastly prefer to have. That’s why Scott Walker, who used to support a path to citizenship, has shifted to a hardline anti-“amnesty” stance. Jeb Bush has tried to mask a similar shift with elusive rhetoric. Why not use Trump’s comments to pin down his rivals on the issue?
The temptation to ignore Trump, to dismiss his idiotic campaign, is perfectly understandable. But ignoring Trump won’t make his appeal vanish, and it may well lead us to misunderstand powerful sentiments animating the GOP base. Resentment will play a key role in this primary, whether it’s Trump’s oafish version or Walker’s ruthlessly effective one. It’s despicable and depressing, but it can’t be defeated through neglect.