Donald Trump is clearly losing this election. What is the media going to do about it?
Even Trump understands that he's way behind in the polls and that those polls are on the level. That's why he shook up his campaign staff this morning to make it more Trump-y. (New campaign motto: "Let Trump be Trump. We're out of other options.") He's doing much worse than Mitt Romney was four years ago, and Romney lost by a solid margin.
Trump is actually doing so badly that he has defeated the national media's reflexive need to "balance" coverage and to present the Presidential election as a close contest. There are plenty of reporters out there happy, more than happy to write the "Trump Comeback" story or, if necessary, the "Trump: Down But Not Out" story. But Trump's campaign has been so, well, Trumpalicious that he hasn't given those reporters a chance. Trump is currently losing so badly that they can't spin the polls any other way. You can't write the comeback narrative if the comeback kid keeps falling further behind.
The great James Fallows tweeted last week that we were approaching a turning point, where the media would have to decide how to cover the election:
Well, this is the week for that collision. Trump's campaign shakeup is, among other things, a clear attempt to get some journalists back to the Comeback narrative, by giving them a "turning point" as a hook for those stories. That, after all, is how Trump's last shakeup, the firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, worked. It provided a peg to hang the "Trump is about to pivot" stories from. It's the equivalent of hanging an "Under New Management" sign on a restaurant that's been closed down over health violations. Now the pivot hasn't worked, because Trump didn't actually pivot, and so he has new new management and Paul Manafort now reports to someone who is basically Corey Lewandowski with even less campaign experience. Whee! Keep your hands and feet inside the roller coaster at all times!
But since the clear point of this reshuffle is to double down on Trump's previous unworkable strategy, there's a chance that it reinforces the Loser in Disarray story instead and brings on the mother of all media pile-ons. The standard thinking is that Trump is failing and flailing because he's refusing to act like a normal candidate. Now he's essentially declared that normal is for losers, and he's going to be more -- God help us -- unrestrained. More rallies, uglier personal attacks, no bothering with stuff like campaign offices in, say, states. Who knows? Maybe he'll burn a cross on his own lawn. Trump is simply going to flail away with both arms. Since most journalists understand Trump's Trumpiness as the reason he's losing, they are going to assume that turbo-Trumping the campaign will only make him a bigger loser.
The press wants a good horse race, always. The horse race means ratings and sales and advertising dollars. They want a close election the way sportscasters want a close game, because it delivers eyeballs. It takes an a lot to pry the media away from their desire to present a national election as neck-and-neck. An election that seems over before Labor Day is basically their worst nightmare: boring, predictable, and bad for business. How do you generate story ideas when the story is already over?
But the national press can also reach a tipping point where they no longer treat the election as a contest at all. Once that point is reached, the press will start to cover Trump and his campaign for the sheer curiosity value of public-self destruction. Not horse-race coverage, but Hindenburg coverage, where you stop pretending the thing is getting off the ground and just invite the viewers to watch the beautiful colors as it burns. This is how local news covers car crashes. This is how reality TV, from which Trump comes, covers the personal meltdowns of the psychologically troubled people they keep putting on camera. They learned early that the audience doesn't watch reality TV to see other people succeed. They watch reality TV to see other people flame out. When Trump's political failure becomes spectacular enough, the press will treat the disaster as a spectacle.
We've basically reached that tipping point now. It's becoming impossible to pretend that Trump has a fighting chance or that he's capable of taking it, that he is anything but a loser. And so the media will be forced to cover him as the huge, dangerously volatile bag of gas that he actually is. You will be able to see the explosion across New Jersey. And the press will just roll the cameras and watch him burn.