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Trump’s success is the media’s failure
The U.S. media should be asking itself some tough questions about the escalating division and violence around the Trump presidential campaign. Not only has our national media failed to recognize the social crisis fuelling the electorate’s rebellion against establishment candidates, it has also failed to confront the unacceptable, un-American racism and bigotry of a campaign which has been given outsize daily coverage because of the commercial gain to be made in exploiting its prurient entertainment appeal.
Like the political establishment to which it is too closely tied, the national media has been in total denial over the political earthquake that has made Trump the Republican presidential frontrunner and has seen Bernie Sanders raise doubts about Hillary Clinton’s prospects. Not only have the major news outlets failed to predict the depth of support both of these ’outlier‘ candidates would muster; they have failed to understand the grievances and deep-seated anxieties of disenfranchised citizen that have propelled these political insurgencies.
In their failure to read the rebellious national mood, many major U.S. media outlets have something in common with their Egyptian counterparts in the years and months before the January 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
All through 2010, the focus of every news outlet in Egypt was on the presumed succession of Mubarak by his son Gamal, and the question of how Egypt’s generals — who had collectively picked every President in more than half a century — would respond to the dynastic succession Mubarak had in mind. None of them bothered to check in with what ordinary Egyptians might be thinking or saying, because ordinary Egyptians had little say in how the system that governed them picked its leaders.
I was hosting a TV show in Cairo in the years before Mubarak fell, and I heard a more compelling insight into the Egyptian mood from a cab driver than I did from any of the guests on my show. ‘Barack Obama is the same colour as us,’ he told me, soon after the President’s historic 2009 speech in Cairo. ‘His father was Muslim, like most of us. And he could become the President of most powerful nation on earth. Here is Egypt, we can’t even choose our president.’
Two years after Obama’s speech in Cairo, ordinary Egyptians shocked local and international media by taking to the streets to overthrow Mubarak.
Italians in 1994 also confounded the expectations of their media when they broke the ‘rules’ of a corrupt and paralyzed political system to elect Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul with a questionable business track record who was about to declare bankruptcy. Berlusconi surfed to victory on a protest vote by working class Italians against their betrayal by a self-serving political class, and went on to become the country’s longest serving prime minister — and to wreck its economy and undermine its democracy.
U.S. TV networks have largely ignored the impact on the majority of citizens of the income equality and wage stagnation resulting from the economic policy consensus between Republican and Democratic administrations over the past three decades. The international trade deals targeted by both Trump and Sanders, for example, have been championed by the corporate-friendly leadership of both parties, but are blamed by ordinary voters for destroying industrial jobs in America.
Trump sidesteps the fact that it is corporate America that has taken advantage of these deals to offshore its manufacturing, instead spreading a toxic nativist message by blaming foreign countries — and stoking fear of immigration by telling white working class Americans that China and Japan, or Latino, Muslims and other immigrants are responsible for their declining standard of living.
Trump offers no answers, but he’s profiting by angrily posing the questions being evaded by other candidates, who prefer to tell economically besieged white working-class Americans that the principal threat to their way of life is women seeking abortions, gay couples seeking to wed, or the ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Trump is a cynical tycoon, like Berlusconi, exploiting the fears of ordinary voters looking for a champion, appealing to their darkest instincts and peddling impossible dreams, all the while casting himself as an outsider to the political and economic system that has betrayed them, and lurches steadily towards another traumatic collapse.
Establishment Republicans, like establishment Democrats, are locked into an economic policy framework that offers no remedy to the declining living standards of the majority of Americans. From Reagan through Obama, the U.S. has followed policies that have put most of the gains of a growing economy into the pockets of a tiny, already wealthy elite. And it is that elite which has called the shots in the Republican and Democratic Party establishment. The Supreme Court’s ’Citizens United’ ruling actually legalizes the buying of influence, legitimizing the effective control of the political process by billionaire donors.
But if Egyptians with no democratic rights refused to accept their miserable fate at the hands of a self-serving elite and overthrew Mubarak, why should it surprise us that Americans slipping steadily towards poverty are using their voting power to stage a political revolution that has torn up the script off which the media continues to read.
The violence that has been encouraged by Trump at his rallies, provoking a backlash by many Americans outraged by his rotten bigotry, may only mark the beginning of years of unrest ahead.
Had the media played its proper role, Washington’s decision makers would have been held to account for the failure of their policies to deliver economic relief to the majority of citizens. But the stories of the decimation of working- and middle class life in America has not been of much interest to a news media obsessed with playing the access game in Washington. Its doyens assume the voice of the establishment themselves, claiming some sort of ‘ownership’ stake in the process, whether the question at hand is invading Iraq or deciding who is and who is not ‘electable’.
So intimate is the connection between the national media and the political establishment that nobody bats an eyelid when TIME White House correspondent Jay Carney becomes Obama’s Press Secretary or when Fox News’ Tony Snow did the same for President George W. Bush. And when ABC presents former Clinton press secretary George Stephanopoulos as a supposedly objective appraiser of a political contest that includes the Clintons, well, that’s just the old revolving door.
Washington’s press corps and its political establishment are locked into a co-dependent relationship that blinkers both to the realities outside of the Beltway. The media are a willing partner of the establishment, not any kind of democratic check on it. The increasingly angry voices of ordinary Americans are barely heard inside the media-political bubble.
Those marginalized voices are now being heard in the national political conversation because they’ve burst the bubble, backing candidates deemed ’unelectable‘ (and unacceptable) by the establishment and rejecting many of its favourites. Voters on the wrong end of America’s skyrocketing social inequality have disrupted the political system, and suddenly all bets are off.
I have seen in America the same phenomenon I saw during the eight years I worked as a TV host and reporter in Italy and in Egypt: Mainstream media functioning as a comfort zone for the political establishment, serving as an echo chamber for its policies and preferences, and excluding voices that disrupt that cozy monologue by pointing out uncomfortable realities, the electorate revolt will turn this political season into a violent one absent a redress to their grievances, violent clashes will become the Norma not the exception.
The major TV outlets show any interest in the unglamorous lives of ordinary Americans is as fodder for reality TV freak shows. And as much as the GOP establishment now expresses horror at the nakedly racist and xenophobic sentiments fuelling support for their frontrunner, the Party has for years cultivated and coddled such bigotry as a distraction from inequality and the plight of Citizen Joe, for which its policies offered no remedies. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost, and the effects — widening division, authoritarianism and crude violence — could be felt for generations.
Like the Egyptian and Italian media, American news outlets have ignored the signs of a revolution in the making — even as it has loomed large on their radars. Perhaps it’s because they’re used to seeing Trump and his core supporters as reality TV fare that the networks have embraced the Trump campaign as a kind of tawdry sideshow to titillate the crowd ahead of a politics-as-usual election.
’It may not be good for America, but it is damn good for CBS,’ that network’s president Les Moonves reportedly told investors last week. ’The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he continued. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.’
That is the sound of American democracy entertaining itself to death.
Rula Jebreal is an award-winning journalist, author and foreign policy analyst who has received accolades for her groundbreaking work in Italy, the United States and across the Middle East.