For the past two weeks, as the general election polls tightened, the mainstream media has taken an extraordinary browbeating—from Democrats, liberal pundits, and the president himself—for allegedly not subjecting Donald Trump to sufficiently exacting coverage.
This line of attack hasn’t worked yet, and it’s unclear if it will. The media actually has reported at length on Donald Trump’s corruption, his impulsiveness, and his racially charged remarks. But such stories are already priced into his brand to a greater extent than they are Clinton’s. Voters don’t care as much about Trump Foundation graft as Clinton Foundation influence-peddling because Trump isn’t promising to be a good-government establishmentarian. He’s promising to be a strongman—someone who breaks the rules to get things done.
The role of the media in the race is especially interesting in light of Gallup’s latest media tracking poll. In a nutshell, confidence in the media has declined steadily at about one point per year over the last two decades (from 53 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2016). But the decline hasn’t been evenly distributed across the political spectrum: Among Republicans, confidence has plummeted especially sharply—an unprecedented 18 points during this election season alone.
These trends are noteworthy for three reasons. First, whatever the reality of media bias, voter opinions don’t reflect the liberal establishment’s charge that the press is being unusually unfair to the Democrat and unusually solicitous of the Republican. Democrats seem to think the press is being about as fair to them as it was before the election; it’s Republicans whose confidence has cratered. It may be, then, that Donald Trump’s continued competitiveness in the race reflects his continued popular appeal—however unsavory it may be—and nothing more, rather than a conspiracy on the part of newsmakers. Indeed, it may be that the media’s occasional well-meaning but clumsy efforts to run interference for Hillary Clinton—for example, by willfully downplaying crime statistics—has drawn more voters into Trump’s orbit.
Second, the poll helps illuminate why Democratic attacks on the press as of late have been so uncharacteristically shrill, while right-wing grievances have simply resembled the bitter (if often justified) griping that has long been staple of the conservative movement. Democrats still have a close relationship with the media—a relationship characterized by high-levels of trust on both sides. So when the media seems to spurn them, the response is white-hot, wounded outrage. The GOP has no such relationship, and no expectation that the media will serve its interests. Actively trying to work the refs seems futile.
Third, the poll highlights the broad-based and seemingly-irreversible erosion in institutional legitimacy in the United States that has paved the way for a candidate who promises to trash those institutions and the norms that sustain them. Trump can promise to shut down hostile press with new libel laws and gain popularity because his constituency has utterly lost faith in the press’ capacity to do its job with integrity. In the long run, it is this collapse in institutional confidence—not the candidacy Donald Trump—that poses the existential threat to the liberal democratic order.
If Trump loses—and that is still likely—many in the political and media establishment will declare that the “problem” is solved, and they can keep going about their business as usual. But as long-run indicators of public opinion attest, this attitude is dangerously, arrogantly removed from reality.