Donald Trump isn't even the President of the United States yet, and already he's achieved what both Barack Obama and George W. Bush pledged but failed to do: Be a uniter, not a divider. Last week, before he bellowed and stomped his way through the first Republican candidates' debate on Fox News, a New York Times story described Trump as "the first post-policy candidate" (and not in a nice way). That view has been mirrored by The Weekly Standard – the standard-bearer of American conservatism and, in many respects, the polar opposite of the Times – which has inveighed against Trump in a series of columns, each one more incredulous than the last at his success.
And yet the developer-slash-fired-Apprentice-host seems impervious to challenges, emboldened even, by the attacks. (Trump's rise will prompt a knowing nod from any Canadian parent familiar with the books of Robert Munsch, whose classic tale The Boy in the Drawer is about a young girl who discovers a pint-sized boy making a mess in her room; every time she insults the troublemaker, he gets bigger.)
There are plenty of reasons Trump seems to be so popular, some of which have to do with poor polling and the power of reality TV. Still, his seeming resilience is unnerving many in the media, and not just because they're in uncharted territory.
Last weekend, after Trump telephoned in to CNN to carp about a question he got during the debate from the Fox News star Megyn Kelly (he told CNN's Don Lemon, "She had blood coming out of her… wherever," a seemingly anti-female comment that the Weekly Standard noted "might end any other presidential campaign"), Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, was forced to call Trump to de-escalate the growing feud. Even though the channel has been one of the most powerful forces in American politics over the past 20 years, it was Ailes who had to take a knee lest the rabble get too roused.
In the two months since Trump announced his candidacy, pundits have twisted themselves in knots trying to understand and explain his appeal; he is a Rorschach blot in a bad hairpiece.
But what the media are really talking about when they talk about Donald Trump is themselves. Because his candidacy is a case study in the anxious state of contemporary media.
His appeal raises hard questions: about clickbait versus quality journalism, and whether the two are mutually exclusive; about bias and fairness; about polls; about outrage journalism; about the little-examined role that class plays in media; about journalistic integrity; about whether the media – even the media outlets that position themselves as the true voices of real people – are actually in touch with real people.
Ultimately, Trump's so-far-bulletproof appeal presents an existential challenge to America's news media – both individually, as in the case of Fox News's craven caving to his complaints about Kelly – and collectively. Because if he does manage to succeed, in spite of the right-to-left array of outlets that are applying increasing scrutiny to him and his, er, checkered record and lack of interest in facts – what does that mean about the efficacy of journalism?
Trump's animus toward journalism is well documented, and on regular display. He praises reporters who praise him, belittle those who do not bow down, sues those who really get under his skin.
Some outlets have tried to inoculate themselves by making their biases part of the coverage. Last month, the Huffington Post declared it would no longer legitimize him by covering him in its Politics section. "Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette."
If it was an odd move by an online outlet – which is usually accessed through social media, where such taxonomic tags are irrelevant – it pointed up the ways in which outlets fall over Trump's tripwires even when they try to avoid them. Most (but not all) of HuffPo's Trump coverage is, indeed, published under its Entertainment section banner, but it's reported by the outlet's Politics staff.
Meanwhile, other outlets seem to be adopting the candidate's own shrugging indifference to facts: Though Trump already sat for a two-part 60-minute chat this week with Fox News's Sean Hannity, in a press release NBC trumpeted its Trump interview on this Sunday's Meet the Press as an "exclusive."
Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser who was asked about his erstwhile boss's habit of fudging the facts, told Bloomberg Politics this week: "The country needs a cheerleader," as if pompoms were the enemies of facts. He added: "The conventional rules of politics – so far at least – do not apply to Donald Trump, and it's an exciting thing."
Trump isn't the first politician to use the media as a whipping boy to raise himself up. (Indeed, a few are on the Canadian campaign trail as we speak.) But he is far more than that: He is pure id, with no interest in journalism or its basic role of holding powerful people to account. He is the electoral equivalent of the yahoos who harass female reporters by yelling the vulgar phrase known as "FHRITP." Like them, Trump sees the media as one big goof. So far, at least, many in the media are content to prove him right.