Media wrong all along on Trump

Op-ed: Professional prognosticators have been spectacularly wrong about Donald Trump.

Despite the latest primary results from "Western Tuesday" this week, the question remains: "What do we make of Donald Trump?" The answer is as roiled now as it has been for the past 10 months. From pundits to politicians to the professional prognosticators in the mass media, nobody knows.

In a perverse but compelling way, the raucous campaign we're witnessing is the mark of a great country. Every four years we can indulge a circus of cacophonic debates, mean-spirited name-calling, endless knee-jerk speculation parading as reasoned analysis — and still come away with a newly anointed leader of the freest democracy in the world. Regardless of the personalities involved, the nation is ruled by law under a Constitution with an ingenious and demanding separation of powers. That's reason for comfort, if not celebration.

This year the entertainment factor has been ratcheted up all the more by the abject incoherence of the press and the pollsters in their predictions. Even the political honchos have been spectacularly wrong. The Democratic National Committee, for example, issued this statement within hours of the moment Mr. Trump announced he was running last June: "He adds some much-needed seriousness that has previously been lacking from the GOP field, and we look forward hearing more about his ideas for the nation." For their part, virtually all of the Republican candidates quickly dismissed both Mr. Trump's legitimacy and prospects for winning.

The media have likewise been off base from the beginning. In mid-July, Peter Fenn of U.S. News & World Report asked, "Now, seriously, does anyone truly believe his fame and fortune are going to get him anywhere in a presidential primary, let alone a general election? His candidacy has been a joke from the start. He makes for great copy, but so did Jack the Ripper. He has no filter. His ego couldn't fit inside the Empire State Building. He has no knowledge of the issues. He is all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas. He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple." No one in his or her right mind, Mr. Fenn went on, believes that Mr. Trump is a serious candidate.

The summer brought more banal bloviating. George Will of the Washington Post: "Television, which has made Trump, will unmake him, turning his shtick into a transcontinental bore." The Manchester Guardian offered a lengthy piece headlined, "Here's why Donald Trump won't win the Republican presidential nomination." Jonathan Bernstein, writing for the Bloomberg View and the Chicago Tribune, said: "Everything we know about how presidential nominations work says Trump isn't going to be the nominee, or even come close."

As recently as December, the New York Times instructed its readers that "Mr. Trump shares a lot in common with strong factional candidates who have ultimately fallen short ... and there are reasons to believe that his high numbers may be driven by unsustainable factors." Just this month, the Washington Post was still beating its editorial head against the wall with the headline: "Two-thirds of Americans don't like Donald Trump."

The networks have been similarly obtuse, with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow saying she "cannot see that what he is doing is something that might conceivably to anyone have any political appeal." A few days later, Mike Barnicle asked on "Morning Joe": "Can we stipulate ... that Donald Trump will never be president of the United States?"

Seasoned political scientists have proven no better at predicting the outcome of the race. "If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong," wrote Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Well, the fact is we're not novices when it comes to political pandemonium. As it happens, Baltimore was the scene of the Democratic presidential convention in 1912, held at the Fifth Regiment Armory, which took no fewer than 46 ballots before Woodrow Wilson was ultimately nominated. (The Monumental City hosted the first six Democratic conventions and three thereafter. In 1864 the Republican assembly, that year billed as the "National Union Convention" took place at the Front Street Theatre and nominated Abraham Lincoln on the first ballot.)

At this point of course we do not know how the 2016 party conventions will play out, but we can be certain that at the end of the process we will have a new president — whose policies and disposition will be both governed more by unforeseen circumstances than by party politics, and constrained by the Constitution more than by campaign rhetoric.

Kenneth Lasson is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. His email is klasson@ubalt.edu.

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