America’s political news-makers are as responsible for perpetuating the hyper-partisan structure of contemporary politics as the politicians themselves. They have latched onto the idea that the parties—and their proponents—are fundamentally different not just politically, but with respect to everything from brain function to vacation habits.
There are many reasons why Donald Trump and his presidential campaign are still not taken entirely seriously in the mainstream, but this, ultimately, is what they all have in common: he doesn’t fit the prefabricated story the media relies on to sell its political coverage.
The pattern began before he even announced his candidacy; researchers tracking news and social media found that from the outset, mainstream coverage focused overwhelmingly on Jeb Bush (and Hillary Clinton on the other side). Leading up to the official start of the primaries, the traditional news media fixated on the idea of a Bush v. Clinton general election, and was slow to accept that their presumed GOP front-runner would not immediately top the polls.
Meanwhile on social media, mentions and “echoes” (Retweets, quotes, shares, etc.) of Trump took off, and haven’t settled back down since. Whether his rhetoric is resonating, or the Internet is simply fueled by irony, it is clear that the mainstream and main street, as measured by George Washington University analysts, have very different attitudes toward the significance of the Trump campaign.
But the competing narratives go further.
While Trump leads in the polls, the most tenured politicians in the race languish at the bottom, and are slowly beginning to drop out and implore voters to stop playing chicken with the nomination process. Just behind Trump in the polls are fellow political outsiders Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson, lending credence to the new narrative that Americans are simply fed up with career politicians and their empty rhetoric.
On the Democrat's side, many argue a similar pattern is unfolding as Clinton sees her poll numbers dive. The “outsider” narrative stumbles over the significant tenure of Bernie Sanders in Congress, but the way news-makers have it, he is so much further left than Clinton on principle that he still counts as an outsider enough to justify comparing him to the leading Republicans.
Lacking an air-tight sociopolitical explanation why Trump can both lead polls and be doomed to failure, poll watchers have been obliged to actually listen to what Trump and the rest of the field have to say. Here, a supplement to the “political outsider” narrative emerges: Trump’s boisterous, devil-may-care style and apolitical background may appeal to voters now, but he has no real policy prescriptions beyond getting himself into the White House.
Trump attacks anyone who criticizes him, and occasionally makes racist/sexist/non-sequitur comments that would normally tank a traditional candidate, but he can’t keep it up forever. Sooner or later, his cult of personality will fail to substitute for real policy, and voters will expect more substantial ideas from their candidate.
This, too, seems compelling on the surface, but even the briefest of reflections on election history demonstrate that substance in debates and on the campaign trail is never guaranteed.
Lock boxes? Joe the Plumber? Binders of women? A sweaty upper lip? Presidential elections are replete with sideshow-worthy distractions, noise, and cartoonish engagement with non-issues. Topical promises and initiatives are consistently swallowed up by vapid minutia like March Madness picks and iTunes playlists.
Historically speaking, it is almost unfair to single Trump out as a nonviable candidate based on the supposed lack of substance in what he has to say. Late night talk shows and sketch comedy programming are a mainstay of modern presidential contests; Trump, if anything, is more native to this environment than the competition.
Ultimately, it is the unpredictability and irascibility of Trump that makes it easier to dismiss him as a non-serious candidate than acknowledge him as the potential GOP nominee. He doesn’t fit the traditional, typical patterns the media follows in its coverage of federal politics, and the makeshift storytelling used to explain his campaign can’t quite capture his place in it all. So he gets rejected out of hand, relegated to the entertainment pages instead of recognized as the still-leading Republican candidate.
In this, as in all other matters relating to the next president, it is much too soon to know with any certainty what the November 2016 ballot will look like. However analysts try to qualify it, that means Trump is staying in the news for a while. It is anybody’s guess whether the media will be able to get their stories straight by the time the primaries are in full swing.