The election of Donald Trump sent a considerable chunk of the media into a navel-gazing funk, struggling to discover what went so wrong that a politically inexperienced billionaire businessman could defeat a woman who spent her adult life holding responsible positions in and around government.
Despite performing more autopsies than the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner conducts in a month, the media seemed unwilling to accept the conclusions --- that angst and fear drove the American people to choose a wildly unorthodox candidate who promised dramatic, if not radical, change while rejecting a career politician viewed as continuing the policies which produced the anxiety in the first place.
Voters were willing to overlook Trump’s off the wall harangues and his smash all the fine china campaign style. His was a visceral appeal to those who felt government had abandoned them, leaving them helpless to cope with job loss, home foreclosures, and a frighteningly uncertain economic future.
The American people were in no mood to accept Hillary Clinton’s soothing assurances that all would be well if the nation would stick with the approach she represented.
While she and Trump often spoke in glittering generalities, his accusation that Clinton had spent 30 years as an insider with nothing to show for it resonated with people who were suffering while their pleas for help fell on deaf governmental ears.
Tens of thousands crammed Trump rallies, cheering his pledge to “make America great again” even if “great again” meant whatever the listener wanted it to mean.
Clinton, meanwhile, played to the interest groups which had so reliably supported Democrats over decades.
Trump was an agent of change when millions of Americans thirsted for change, while Clinton represented a “stay the course” philosophy when people were fed up with the course.
Running in Trump’s favor was an undercurrent of Nixon’s “great silent majority” --- people who played by the rules, paid their taxes, respected law enforcement, and revered the established institutions of government.
Clinton came across as the penultimate establishment candidate favored by the elites of the east and west coasts, a perception reinforced by massive fund raising events attended by the Hollywood crowd and campaign rallies featuring rock and hip-hop artists.
Those events bred resentment and fueled criticism that she felt entitled to the presidency and looked condescendingly upon those who disagreed. Describing Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables” was arguably the single most damaging remark she uttered in the campaign.
Despite some in the Democratic Party who attributed her defeat in part to having lost touch with a great many Americans, Clinton and her campaign sought to blame outside influences, singling out FBI Director James Comey for revealing 11 days prior to the election that his agency had discovered additional e-mails and were investigating to determine their relevance. Less than a week before the polls opened, Comey said nothing of importance was found.
Blaming him was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona.
It is no small irony that Trump, who took every opportunity to remind his audiences that he was very rich and achieving wealth was his life’s passion, related so well to those who would never reach his financial height.
He was, though, one of them. He showed up at his appearances wearing a baseball cap, said that political correctness lay at the heart of the nation’s ills, and promised his success in the business world would lead to a return to national greatness.
And, the media missed it all.
Reporters, commentators and analysts ridiculed Trump, assailed him and his supporters as driven by bigotry and racism. They questioned his intellect, his understanding of complex foreign policy issues, and sneeringly predicted his candidacy would collapse as his deficiencies become more glaring.
Their view was summed up by a New York Times columnist who said Trump’s support consisted of people who would “vote their gene pool.” In other words, he appealed to voters too intellectually shortchanged to heed more intelligent people who knew what was best for them.
The comment bespoke an arrogance that blinded it to the forces inflaming the country and seeking an outlet. That outlet was a thrice-married New York City billionaire who never served in elected or appointed office.
The media has missed stories before, of course, though none with the global impact of a Trump presidency, and will at some point emerge from its funk. When it does, it would do well to remember its core mission as purveyors of information, rather than messengers of ideology.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. You can reach him at cgolden1937@gmail