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The Mystery of Trump, Partially Explained

Reaping the withered crop from journalism’s long drought

Paul Berman
August 09, 2016
The Library of Congress Flickr
The Library of Congress Flickr

The New York Times published an article last week by Nicholas Confessore and Nick Corasaniti which, without meaning to do so, shed a light on the dark mystery of the Trump campaign—namely, how did everyone fail to see it coming? The journalists and political analysts, myself included—how did they, and I, fail to see that Trump’s campaign was going to be strong and viable? Fail to see that America’s political tradition has undergone a rupture? Fail to see that America could easily end up electing a president wholly unlike any of his 43 predecessors?

The Confessore-Corasaniti article was titled “Fueled by Small Donations, Donald Trump Makes Up Major Financial Ground,” and it revealed that Trump’s fundraising brought in $82 million in July through online and direct-mail solicitations, which was nearly as much as Hillary Clinton has managed to raise. There is much to say about this news, but the point that strikes me is how surprising it is; how much this news resembles every one of the developments that have resulted in Trump’s being a viable candidate for president, one astonishment after another. Not a single story that I had read had encouraged me to suppose that enormous numbers of Trump’s supporters were sending in small donations, Bernie Sanders-style. On the contrary, a large number of articles had reported that Trump’s fundraising was disastrous, and his campaign was hopelessly lagging behind Clinton’s in that regard.

And yet, why should Trump’s success at raising money Bernie-style be a surprise? Here is the most important revelation that I glean from the Confessore-Corasaniti story. The fundraising cannot have gone on in secret. If small donors have sent $82 million in a single month to the Trump campaign, this means that in some parts of the country, everybody knows somebody who has donated, and in certain neighborhoods, almost everyone has donated, maybe several times over—as was the case with Bernie’s supporters. And this, in turn, means something else: If millions of people have been active Trump donors and that fact has gone unnoticed by the press, no journalist has succeeded in cultivating the insider contacts with the campaign that would have revealed the enormous development. And no journalist has been conducting the kind of grassroots reporting that a presidential campaign ought to require.

I have not done any such reporting myself in this election, but I know from experience exactly how easy it is to do. You attend political rallies, where you can talk to people in groups. You hang out in neighborhoods where people enjoy talking politics. You allow your chats to wander aimlessly. You strike up friendships. You learn to distinguish eccentric people from typical people. And you come away with a pretty good idea of what ordinary people are thinking and doing. I am certain that any reasonably clever reporter who had spent enough time hanging out with Trump’s supporters would have learned that enormous numbers of those people were doing something more than wearing hats. In America, people boast about their dollar contributions.

I conclude that no one, or hardly anyone, has been reporting on Trump’s campaign in that fashion. Now, why not? Every journalist knows the answer. Reporters have not been reporting because, in the United States, the newspaper industry has largely collapsed. A huge number of newspapers no longer exist. Even at the biggest and most prestigious of the surviving papers, the staffs have changed such that in place of the seasoned old hands, the reporting is being done by young people who once would have been considered “stringers.” And even the stringers are overworked—pressed to turn in stories on a basis of insufficient reporting.

And yet, although the industry has largely collapsed, it does not appear to have collapsed. Newspapers and reporting sites still exist, and because of social-media postings, sometimes they appear to be more vigorous than ever (though we ought to remember that a reporter who is busy posting is not actually reporting). We readers come away thinking that we are pretty well-informed. But we are not. We are stumbling in the dark without knowing it. Plainly, the Trump campaign represents something radically new in American political life—something not only dangerous but mysterious. But one of the reasons for the mystery is not mysterious at all. It is the crisis in journalism.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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