Why Donald Trump could thank the media if he wins reelection this fall

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Various media outlets are struggling with recent polls that not only show President Trump at the same popularity as this time last year but actually rising in states like Ohio. When one poll found him leading by 7 points in battleground states, John King warned his viewers to “be careful not to invest too much in any one poll” especially amid the coronavirus. While Biden leads in other polls, the situation is certainly not unique.

The media seems to be confused. It was not supposed to work this way. With unrelentingly negative coverage of an impeachment, a pandemic, and an economic collapse, voters were supposed to be angry. There is even a psychological model for such social cognitive learning known as “Bobo the Clown” and, while this experiment by the psychologist Albert Bandura was done 60 years ago, recent polls suggest that conditioning does not work quite as well in politics as it does on playgrounds.

In 1961, Bandura used a goofy inflatable clown named Bobo and had children watch adults as they acted aggressively toward it. Soon the children would follow the example of the adults and beat the clown. Conversely, when children watched the clown being treated without aggression by the adults, they were less aggressive toward it.

For many voters, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are not funny clowns, and voters are being conditioned by the media to treat one aggressively and the other unaggressively. It was not the first attempt at it. In 2016, when every poll indicated that voters wanted outsider candidates, Democrats pushed Hillary Clinton, one of the most unpopular candidates in history. She was beaten by Trump, who was the other most unpopular candidate. After positive treatment of Clinton and negative coverage of Trump, the election stunned experts who predicted an easy win for Clinton.

The conclusion of the media appears to be that the scathing treatment in 2016 was not actually aggressive enough. The president today is routinely called a clown by some in the media. There are also consistent attacks on Trump supporters. As Washington Post “conservative columnist” Jennifer Rubin has declared that Trump supporters on the whole are racists, that common stereotyping of Trump supporters is uncontested, even as the media objects to his generalized statements about other groups.

Leonard Pitts wrote a recent column in which he said Trump supporters “fear a black and brown America.” Indeed, the media narrative today has moved past that description by Clinton of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” to portraying Trump supporters as racists. Even wearing “Make America Great Again” hats is denounced by some academics as a kind of symbol of “modern day hitlerjugend” and hate speech.

It is all part of media cognitive learning, and it is working in a curious way. Polls show Trump at the exact same spot as he was last year, with about 43 percent support. Trump is even ahead in Ohio by 3 points in a survey done by Emerson College. Trump and Biden are in a statistical dead heat in Wisconsin. As in 2016, the media narrative is forcing Trump supporters in the political closet but not away from backing the president.

Meanwhile, the media has been working hard at less aggressive treatment of Biden. His gaffes are quickly dismissed. When he was accused of sexual assault, the media reluctantly noted the story. Even when Biden espoused the Postal Service conspiracy theory that Trump would somehow halt the election this year, the media called it a prediction and ignored that it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution.

The Media Research Center found network evening news was 96 percent negative against Trump last year. The drumbeat rose with impeachment and pandemic coverage this year. Despite this, polls show the number of voters expressing strong enthusiasm for Biden is wallowing at 24 percent, while Trump is at 53 percent. Additionally, Biden is just 3 points ahead of Trump in recent polls, behind where Clinton was in 2016. The reason may be that the narrative against Trump is so overwhelming that voters think they are being played like kids in the psychology experiment.

Consider again the attack of Rubin on most Republicans. She lashed out at the immigration order by Trump during the pandemic. But she was still not satisfied with denouncing this new policy as a stunt to appeal to the unemployed. She declared there is no doubt the Trump base is “primarily motivated by racism.” The statement reveals the accepted and unhinged bias against all Trump supporters by the mainstream media.

I did not vote for Trump and I have criticized him publicly. But I have also watched the stereotyping of Trump supporters at media conferences for years. That suggests those 63 million American who had voted for Trump in 2016 are all racists. It ignores the fact that Clinton was widely viewed as pathologically inauthentic. Polls show 85 percent of Republicans support Trump. According to Rubin, those 85 percent of Republicans are primarily motivated by racism. This tracks with zero sense of reality.

What is not discussed in the media is that people have reasons other than racism in voting for Trump. The fact is that he has a curious record. He is often chastised for untrue statements, yet he has one of the best records for delivering on campaign promises, like cracking down on immigration, building the Mexican border wall, nominating conservative jurists, rolling back regulations, allowing oil drilling, and lowering taxes.

These and many other features of his administration happen to be the most controversial, but they also remain on the wish list of conservatives dating back to Ronald Reagan. Indeed, while 85 percent of Republicans support Trump, a new poll shows more than 20 percent of Republicans would like to see someone else as their nominee. Yet Rubin and others simply dismiss all Trump supporters as monolithic racists.

Recent polls indicate that the unending media attacks on Trump and his supporters are not actually conditioning but instead are repelling voters. They are fulfilling his narrative that voters cannot trust the media. While many voters may still view both Trump and Biden as clowns, they resent getting continually conditioned to punch one over the other. Indeed, if Trump wins reelection, he could have the media to thank.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

Tags Business Coronavirus Donald Trump Economics Election Politics President

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