The late Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message." That's certainly proven true throughout the phenomenon of the Trump candidacy, and it's essential to understanding it.
Today's front page of the Philadelphia Enquirer proclaims "The New Furor" as the headline caption to a photo of Donald Trump emphatically addressing supporters with his arm and hand extended. Yes, the photographer caught exactly the right moment to evoke the intended editorial message and its play on words.
That becomes the lead, replacing Donald Trump's comments that caused it, the advocacy that we should ban all Muslims from coming to the United States, even American Muslims returning home from overseas.
Any reaction the media can get on camera becomes the new headline. Especially someone that broadcast journalism calls "a good get," like Maajid Nawaaz, author of "Extremist: My Journey Out of Fundamentalist Extremism." Nawaaz said Tuesday morning on CNN, "First he came for the Mexicans, now he's coming for the Muslims."
One can only hope that viewers' awareness of history was sufficient to feel the impact of Nawaaz's intentional echo. It was Martin Niemöller who famously wrote "First they came for... and I did not object, then they came for... and I did not object," as he named, in succession, the targets of the Nazis, from the Socialists to the trade-unionists to the Jews, concluding with, "then they came for me, and there was no one left to object."
Throw in a media insider's (reality TV star's) understanding that lets you evoke "I'm-as-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-this-anymore," the iconic Howard Beale from "Network," and you get Donald Trump.
Niemöller (1892–1984), a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the fascist regime, spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. His poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis' rise to power, and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group, has resonated far too many times in the face of bigotry and oppression.
From all quarters, Donald Trump is being lambasted for advocating state-sponsored xenophobia unparalleled in America in modern times. And we are a nation with a history that allows us to know it when we see it. The Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois, to found their own nation-state of Deseret in present-day Utah. We persecuted the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad from the west, and for a time, banned immigration from Asia. We persecuted the Irish who built the railroad from the east — after they helped the Union win the Civil War. There was the 20th century internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. There was an Eisenhower-era program that deported people of Mexican origin, that was actually named "Operation Wetback," which Trump has referenced by name as a model, bringing gasps.
Every time you think you're past something, that the nation has grown to appreciate the strength of its diversity and multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic origins...
Muslim men don't stand out like black people in a white town. But many Muslim women wear head scarves, and long confining dresses when everyone else wears clothes that ventilate in warm weather, and some wear veils, or more, all the way to a birka, and there are legal cases over the need for driver license photos that allow the person to be identified. Clearly, there is "difference."
And while there is no research we can find that establishes a direct connection linking fear of differences, the "open carry" gun movement began after 9-11. And it is a strong presence in communities with a history of racial division where there a lot of churches.
The issues of radical jihadi extremism are excruciatingly complicated within and for the Muslim world, yet many Americans want simple, black-and-white conclusions that simply are not achievable, anywhere. While that's been true since the ham-handed "regime change" arrogance in Iraq, it hasn't diminished short-attention-span expectations.
Short attention spans, derived from, demanded from, and supplied by, our media. It goes back to the half-hour TV sitcom, where every problem of life gets resolved in 30 minutes or less.
Thus, Fox-watching real 'Muricans are a ready-made audience for emphatic plainness with a no-nonsense default to badass pugilistic rhetoric. Throw in a media insider's (reality TV star's) understanding that lets you evoke "I'm-as-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-this-anymore," the iconic Howard Beale from "Network," and you get Donald Trump.
And each and every time, we get the dialog that he's gone too far, that maybe this time his unrestrained rant will be his undoing, and it isn't, and it won't be, because there is an insatiable media need to cover it (which feeds it) and a post-Limbaugh audience that laughs with it more than at it.
And today brought a new USA Today poll in which 68% of Trump supporters say they will stay with him if he bolts the GOP for an independent bid. That will surely complicate things for a media devoted to give deference to the GOP.
The media does change in their willingness to eventually call bullsh*t when it gets so deep that it threatens to suffocate even them.
Chris Cuomo went after Donald Trump early Tuesday morning during one of Trump's signature phoners on CNN. Trump dispensed sound bytes in flurries, saying, "We're at war." "Why do we insist on destroying our country?" "We shouldn't be letting Syrians in. Why are we not letting the Christians in? We only allow the Muslims in."
Cuomo was having none of it, challenging Trump's every assertion as demonstrably false, and getting counterclaims or diversions using additional incongruous assertions from Trump at every turn. Cuomo, working while sick with the flu, was sharp through most of it.
Trump pursued his new line about France. He claims they sewed the seeds of their own destruction with unbridled immigration and now they live in fear as the result.
Cuomo countered, "In Paris, we see them refusing to embrace fear. Are they banning all Muslims? You're demanding that we ban all Muslims."
Cuomo mostly had to talk over Trump to repeatedly counter each sentence with, "That's not true," and ultimately to insert, in exasperation, "Look, you’re running for president. You can't just throw out assertions without checking anything. That's what got you on the front page of the Philadelphia Enquirer, like Hitler," as he held the newspaper.
Trump cited "a poll that shows 25% of all Muslims in this country believe violence against the United States is justified," and Cuomo instantly hit him with, "You know that was discredited even by conservatives as not a credible source."
Of course, in usual TV form, Trump ultimately got the last word in a lengthy dissertation, followed by a panel of reporters to comment for too brief an interval.
In that panel, Michael Smerconish minced no words in his analysis, saying of Trump, "The man has no decency." Perhaps his thoughts included Trump's audience readily embracing his discredited poll about Muslims.
John King, CNN's chief national correspondent, contrasted the nuanced points of President Obama's Sunday night address with everything Trump has said since. "Trump doesn't do nuance. He comes straight at you," noting there is a considerable audience that doesn't want or can't comprehend nuance.
When TV began, it was all about nuance, more intimate than a stage play viewed from halfway back in the theatre, more face-to-face than anything before, where there was no budget for the vistas of the movies, where closeups of smiles and frowns and raised eyebrows sold the 30-minute stories of "Lucy" and Jackie Gleason and "Our Miss Brooks" and the quickfire sketch comedies of "Your Show of Shows" and Milton Berle. How things have changed. After countless computer-generated exploding planets and instantly destroyed civilizations, perhaps the masses are blind to nuance, or simply too impatient.
Back to John King, who noted that statistics and studies only matter to Trump when they support what he and his supporters know is "common sense." King made the point, "Don't try telling his people that immigration is down, that far fewer undocumented individuals are coming across the border [and there has been a net out-migration]… because they believe it's a huge problem."
King echoed the oft-made point about Trump supporters, that they're impervious to facts. It's often added that they are resentful of anyone who presents facts that challenge what they are already inclined to believe, and that, likewise, plays to the conservative mistrust and animosity toward the press.
The other Trump pre-dawn Trump phoner was on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. Once again, Trump displayed his absolute inability to see the validity of criticism or to accept that anyone else may understand something better than he does.
Trump has been granted more phoners than FDR's total number of radio "Fireside Chats."
Things there got interesting when Trump refused to pause his rant. Host and former congressman Joe Scarborough, a Republican firebrand who helped Newt Gingrich achieve a shutdown of the federal government during the Clinton administration, exerted his authority. After warning Trump to stop talking incessantly, he simply went to an unplanned commercial to cut him off. After that, Trump properly took questions from the panel.
Scarborough pursued an interesting line, and things got multifaced. He observed, "We were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union for decades. If we had banned Russian immigrants, we wouldn't have Google."
Trump, who can never admit to being wrong, diverted.
Scarborough continued, "Muslim Americans have buying power of a hundred million dollars. They employ a lot of other Americans. We want them on our side. We want them with us defeating terrorism... [we won't get that] by alienating them."
Trump agreed but defended his advocacy to exclude all Muslims from entering the U.S.
Gene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winner from the Washington Post, took the most meaningful shot: "Donald, your campaign has changed. In the beginning you appealed to people's aspirations. Now you are appealing to people's fears."
But Trump just bloviated about "America being great again and achieving aspirations," as if the question had not been asked.
Scarborough gave Trump the final word, and it proved more interesting there than Trump's waste of it on CNN. Scarborough asked, "What's your final word in all this for Muslims?"
Trump jumped into, "We love you, we want you, we want you to turn in the bad ones."
But nobody jumped on his inclusion of "We want you," when everything else he is saying is quite the contrary. It almost seemed a moment for a campaign video.
Of course, TV is driven by anything visual, and Trump seems, in as big a contradiction as the man himself, to always do phoners. So on-camera guests to talk about what Trump says are therefore needed, which results in even more airtime about Trump.
Floundering GOP presidential candidate Lindsey Graham was given a segment on CNN to represent the universal disapproval of Trump's "ban Muslims" advocacy by all the other Republican candidates.
Graham opened with, "He's a race-baiting xenophobic bigot who is empowering the enemy. Remember the guy in Florida [he meant the fundamentalist Christian extremist preacher, but he wouldn't say that] who was going to burn the Koran? That caused trouble for our people in Iraq. I'd rather lose without Donald Trump than win with him."
That was as strong as it's gotten, where all the GOP candidates have pledged to support their party's nominee, whoever that is.
Graham used his moment to take a shot at his party's new frontrunner, saying, "I'm calling on Ted Cruz, who's trying to have it both ways, to renounce this stuff."
Indeed, Cruz has appeared to be posturing to reap Trump backers, should their hero fall, or to become Trump's choice for VP.
Graham got his second quotable sound byte with, "I want to talk to Donald Trump supporters for a minute. I don't know who you are or why you like this guy."
Of course, GOP presidential candidate Graham unwittingly revealed a reason for his own miniscule poll numbers by acknowledging that he does not understand the nature of Trump's followers.
Graham recited his usual mantra of "The thirty-five times I've been to the Middle East" to assert his bona fides, in contrast to Trump's profit-only knowledge of other nations and cultures. This time, Graham quickly used his claim of expertise to remind viewers of "The American Muslims who served in our military in Iraq" and how Muslims throughout the region "died by the thousands to fight this radical ideology" without specifically mentioning ISIL or al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Sen. Graham concluded his airtime with, "You know how you fight radical ideology, which 99% of all Muslims reject? You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell."
It didn't take long for Jeffrey Lord, who served as Political Director in the Reagan White House, to be brought to the forefront so he could call Graham "a hypocrite," citing "a law that's been on the books for years, while Graham has been in the Congress" that allows restriction of Muslim immigration in the way Trump advocates.
"Graham could have tried to change that law. He never did. But now he's expressing outrage when Trump says the same thing the law does?" said Lord, without making clear what law he was talking about until another CNN host brought him back, hours later.
But there is history there. Back in June, Lord called Graham a "socialist ratcheteer," which suggests that Lord is so far to the right that he requires piped-in oxygen. That was shortly after Graham provoked the wingnuts by saying, "America's polarized, and it's all [Sean] Hannity's fault."
Lord returned on Ashley Banfield's "Legal View" show to explain the ignorance that Trump and his detractors are showing in common, according to him. Banfield readily embraced Lord's citation of the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, agreeing that it still provides the authority after 217 years to do what everyone is outraged that Trump is advocating.
Of course, Lord didn't miss the chance to lambaste Franklin Roosevelt for using the law during World War II. After all, CNN keeps him in their stable of conservative commentors — every outlet has a big stable of conservative commentors, far in excess of their on-call liberal or progressive commentors — and trots him out to take potshots that produce soundbytes that out-fox Fox.
Not that everything they say is crazy. In the present case of jihadist radicals, Lord asserted, "We're dealing with political philosophy here disguised as religion."
Back to Lord's attack on Lindsey Graham and the significance there.
It's worth noting that it was Lord's old boss Ronald Reagan who frequently and more publicly than anyone — before or since — invoked the Republican "eleventh commandment:" "Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republican."
That joins the list of the many things Reagan actually said that Republican candidates cannot recall. The corollary? It's what Democrats chide as Republicans' endless evocations of their spirit of "Saint Ronnie" in one-size-fits-all misquotations. If GOP candidates for any office — from dogcatcher up — agree on anything: all of them, even Trump, hear harp choirs and genuflect over the idea of cannonizing Ronald Reagan, even if they grossly misremember most of what he did.
It's certainly significant as philosophic erosion, this trashing of their eleventh commandment. The Republican default mode of fear-based thinking now extends to plenty of rationalization and justification of fears for the future of their party. Of course, the root cause is basic: it's desperation by frustrated GOP establishment candidates to attract media attention that all goes to insurgent outsiders — chiefly Trump, the bull in the china shop who breaks more than the insurance will cover.
For his part, Trump is the enduringly successful one-trick pony, desperate to keep the plates spinning on the sticks, to keep his base energized. And thereby, to remain atop the news cycle with a fresh, daily proclamation of something the masses have been waiting to hear, but that no one else has said because it's too outrageous.
Over the weekend, Bill Moyers, the longtime intellectual conscience of American journalism, wrote a scathing piece for the Huffington Post. Moyers details and celebrates the current fragmentation — he sees it as the collapse — of the Republican Party. While his perspective can be seen as a perverse glee, Moyers presents ample reasons why it's time for the decadent, inbred oligarchy of this corrupt Rome to fall. Far beyond the tactical advantages Democratic candidates are likely to enjoy from chaos in the opposition, Moyers shames the GOP for descending into the fear-based, science-denying, hypocritical holier-than-thou modern analog to the Inquisition.
It's a compelling contrast that the media has been meticulous in allowing each GOP presidential candidate airtime to denounce Trump — even Lindsay Graham, a candidate with support so tiny that it's in the margin of error. Yet the Democratic candidates did not receive the same opportunity. Hillary Clinton got asound six-second soundbyte on most outlets. Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley went unmentioned most places. You had to hunt to find Bernie's statement — especially relevant to our discussion — "It's fun for the political media to treat Donald Trump like he's the lead character in a soap opera or the star player on a baseball team. But the truth is his language is dangerous, especially as it empowers his supporters to act out against Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans."
Granted, the story is Trump being outrageously dangerous, not each individual voice in the chorus that disagrees with him. But why is it only about Republicans who disagree with him?
That brings us back to McLuhan, that the medium — and the media — is the message, and how much that matters.
There's an odd scramble today to stay on the Trump story while covering the sudden rise of Cruz, almost as if there is a connection, when there isn't.
Polls out yesterday and today show Sen. Ted Cruz (R, TX) has moved into first place in Iowa with a sudden four-point lead over Trump, while Ben Carson's support has collapsed with a 19% fall from his most recent previous numbers. Of course, today's poll is based on data collected before Trump's "ban Muslims" firestorm. And in Republicanville, who can say whether his numbers will surge up or down as that rock splashes into the stew pot.
Bob Dole, who vies with Bush 41 as GOP methusalah, was asked this morning by MSNBC, "Would you vote for Ted Cruz if he is the Republican nominee?"
Dole, who really looks rheumy eyed and old, replied clearly, "I might oversleep that day. Cruz goes on about 'President Dole and President McCain and President Romney' as if we're all a bunch of losers. We're not losers. Who does he think he is? He uses the word 'conservative' far more often than he uses the word 'Republican.'"
Meanwhile, new front runner Ted Cruz is in the curious position of being the newsmaker who's relegated to the back pages by the guy he's supposedly beating. But if anybody is equipped for that, it's probably him.
The worse kept secret in Washington is that Cruz has no friends, anywhere. Certainly Democrats don't like him. But establishment and congressional Republicans hate him, too.
A former White House staffer to George W. Bush — every outlet seems to have several — was on camera to say, "George Bush doesn't comment much on politics, but he's made clear how [negatively] he feels about Sen. Cruz."
Beyond W's assessment, she added, "Ted Cruz is incredibly talented and enormously disliked."
And the beat goes on. No doubt the entire news cycle will be about what anti-Muslim rhetoric accomplishes here and overseas. And as always, the media will shape and bend the message.
Because they don't want any more of those organized boycotts of advertisers by fundamentalist church groups. Or any more of those website-crashing email campaigns by conservatives who volunteer as social media trolls. Or another of those switchboard-knockouts from organized complaint calls.
What balance between the next version of last summer's apocalyptic story that ebola would kill us all, and it was Obama's fault, and Muslins will kill us all, but it's not Trump's fault — unless a GOP establishment coup takes him out. And whether Republicans need to press for a big military involvement now, before a Trump debacle costs them both houses of the Congress? Or maybe that can't be the story, because it will trigger the organized conservatives to paralyze something.
What's most interesting in all this is the media's efforts at daily adjustment, trying to cope with the utter chaos in Republicanville without revealing the little man behind the curtain and the emperor without clothes. Because the medium, and the media, and the choices and the characterizations are the message, far more than the stories they purport to cover.