What is the media to do with Donald Trump? On one hand, they have to cover him. after all, he has been the leading Republican candidate for over three months. He is leading in all the polls, nationally, in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire. Ratings go up with every appearance.
On the other hand, Trump spews lies with every appearance. When he is called on a lie, rather than admit to it, he doubles down, repeating it and, occasionally, adding specific details that are also lies. the latest example occurred on This Week where George Stephanopoulos showed a clip of him claiming to have seen thousands and thousands of Arab Americans in Jersey City, New Jersey cheering on 9/11 after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Stephanopoulos pointed out that there was absolutely no evidence that such a thing had happened and asked if Trump had misspoken (lied). Trump doubled down:
It did happen. I saw it… It was on television. I saw it. George, it did happen. There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down — as those buildings came down. And that tells you something… It was well covered at the time, George. Now, I know they don’t like to talk about it, but it was well covered at the time. There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down. Not good.
All Stephanopoulos had time to do was lamely repeat that the police said it didn’t happen.
Of course, various media watchdogs like the Washington Post’s Politifact point out Trump’s lies after the fact, but the damage has already been done. One reason Trump is able to outmaneuver moderators like Stephanopoulos is that he is a master of the debating technique known as the Gish Gallop:
The Gish Gallop, named for the Creationist Duane Gish, is a technique of drowning an opponent in such a torrent of small arguments that the opponent cannot possibly answer or address each one in real time. More often than not, these myriad arguments are full of half-truths, lies, and straw-man arguments — the only condition is that there be many of them, not that they be particularly compelling on their own. They may be escape hatches or “gotcha” arguments that are specifically designed to be brief, but take a long time to unravel.
In the amount of time available on a network program like This Week, the Gish Gallop allows prevaricators like Trump the opportunity to make one outlandish claim after another with relative impunity.
It is beginning to dawn on the pundants that Trump has a good chance of winning the Republican nomination. Highly respected political scientist, Alan Abramowitz, thinks he has a reasonable chance to do what Paul Krugman calls the “Trumpthinkable”.
Trump isn’t only leading in national polling. He’s leading in every state poll I’ve seen. He seems to be ahead in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in South Carolina, Nevada. Voters say he’s a strong leader who will shake up Washington, and that’s what they want. He’s the leader on big issues like immigration, terrorism, the economy. And the Washington Post/ABC News poll found a plurality — even more voters than actually support him — think he’s the candidate with the best chance of winning in November.
So, how do we account for Trump’s outlandish claims and lies? Abromowitz believes that, ironically, they cause him to gain in popularity with the Republican base. Even though the Republican establishment has started to realize a Trump nomination might guarentee a Democratic victory in November, the base isn’t buying it. They view the over-the-top rhetoric as evidence Trump is a fighter who will not back down and who will speak his mind, qualities the feel are needed in a leader. According to Abromowitz,
There have been very clear signals already from the Republican establishment, from Fox News, from conservative pundits — it’s been clear they think this is really bad for the Republican Party, but it hasn’t worked so far.
There have been repeated moments when Trump said something outrageous and there were predictions that this is the beginning of the end of Trump, and then he does better. This goes all the way back to his attacks on John McCain’s war record and his sexist attacks on Megyn Kelly. These things don’t seem to hurt him. Among his supporters, they take that as a sign that this is a guy who speaks his mind, says a lot of things they agree with — and besides which, who do you trust, Donald Trump or the mainstream media that is telling you he’s lying?
Poll watchers with outstanding predictive records, like Nate Silver, are convinced Trump will certainly fade and that the media should quit “freaking out” about these early poll numbers. Silver seems to be the voice of reason, but with each passing week the Trump phenomena continues to gain momentum while other early front runners like Jeb Bush and Ben Carson do fade.
It certainly has the makings of an interesting Presidential race for the pundants and comedians. For the average American, maybe not so much.