The trouble covering Trumps, both hard and soft

“There could certainly be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people . . . We want people — we have some great people in this country.”

-Trump to Sean Hannity, August 24, 2016

“I don’t think it’s a softening. I’ve had people say it’s a hardening, actually.”

-Trump to Anderson Cooper, a day later

Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has wavered on policy points in this pivot from the primary process to the general election. His position is always strongly worded and “plainly” delivered, but many are noting how the positions are inconsistent. Inconsistency makes reporting on the policies of a Trump administration exceedingly difficult for reporters. I do not envy journalists on the Trump beat.

Take, for example, a recent New York Times piece on the candidate’s immigration plan.

Reporting on Schizophrenic Policy
Heavily revised reporting on Trump’s policy vision under revision

NYT reporter, Patrick Healy, has the unenviable task to produce a coherent story on the Trump immigration plan, a touchstone of the campaign and a central issue that allowed Trump to rise to the top of the Republican scrum.

Adding to Healy’s troubles, the Trump campaign is fond of disputing the neutrality of reporters when the message does not reflect his position clearly. News media are “scum” and “so dishonest,” he often intones to an audience eager to dismiss mainstream media.

As the revision process suggests (documented by NewsDiffs), reporting on the Trump campaign can get quite messy, reflecting the messiness of the candidate’s political messaging itself.

So, how do we get clarity in reporting when there is so little? It is the job of good election journalism to clarify and summarize the position of the candidates. But what happens when candidates refuse to offer clear policy positions while attacking the press for misinterpreting the message?

There was once a time in American journalism that simple self-contradiction from officials could be reported with some simplicity. Recall the “flip-flop” news narrative that enveloped John Kerry in 2004 and then became attack ad fodder to doom Kerry’s presidential bid. President George H. W. Bush also suffered scrutiny for openly changing positions on planned parenthood when he conformed to the Reagan platform as a vice presidential candidate in 1980.

The policy changes, rightly or wrongly, were the subject of substantive debate, allowing voters to engage with the political process. Changing position or even being opaque about where a candidate stood was damaging and forced officials and their surrogates to sharpen their position for the American public.

Not so with the Trump campaign. He so far appears to be beyond any accusations of flip flopping. Why? Well, first, he seems to have few principled stands on familiar election issues. Compounding the problem, he also has little history in public life or voting records for journalists to mine for changing positions. Still, Trump’s love of interviews has offered up a goldmine of nuggets to compare and contrast his unsettled positions on issues, from 2003 invasion of Iraq to more a recent shift from describing hispanics as “rapists” to describing them as “honest and hard-working” people.

The question is this. Does self-contradiction matter in a Trump-styled campaign with Trump-styled support base?

Trump Supporter Cruz
Ted Cruz attempts to discuss Trump policy contradictions with a Trump supporter . . . and fails.

The so-called pivot to the general election has the novice politician scrambling for a middle way, one that retains the anger of his base that propelled him to candidacy while “softening” or not his immigration plank.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in a public interview with Fox News’s Hannity. Trump announces his “softening” during this interview before a rambunctious audience but, strangely, Trump also asked the audience for their opinion in a jumbled series of questions. The crowd did not respond how he may have hoped.

DONALD TRUMP: Now, can we be, and I’ll ask the audience, you have somebody who’s terrific, who’s been here —

SEAN HANNITY (HOST): 20 years.

TRUMP: Right, long time. Long court proceeding, long everything, okay? In other words, to get them out. Can we go through a process, or do you think they have to get out? Tell me. I mean, I don’t know. You tell me.

HANNITY: Well let me — let’s do a poll.

TRUMP: I’d like to know, I’d like to know.

HANNITY: How many think they should go through a process that maybe give ’em a chance? Clap, we gotta hear you.

TRUMP: How many people —

HANNITY: How many people think they should go?

TRUMP: Do it again.

Trump requests to “do it again” because the response suggested he should not “soften” his stance. He asks again if we should “throw out” the “good” illegal immigrants who have no criminal history and are upstanding members of the community. The crowd, confused and uproarious, responds with the typical Trumpist line: throw them all out. One man in the crowd seems to challenge Trump’s pivot, shouting “they take our jobs.”

The poll was unscientific, to say the least. Trump’s engagement with the audience, however, does clarify how he formulates policy. He will adjust his position according to immediate public praise or approbation. Far from being the banner holder for a set of policies, his positions change to accommodate the needs of his most vocal Republican voter base. Under the appearance of leading, Trump floats ideas and reshapes them according to the emotional feedback from his followers.

“Yeah. It was a suggestion. Look, anything I say right now, I’m not the president. Everything is a suggestion, no matter what you say, it’s a suggestion.”

-Trump on his policy ideas to Fox & Friends

It is becoming evident that Trump wishes to moderate his position on the illegal immigrant population currently in the United States. Yet he cannot.  Trump, led by the whims of his audience, cannot pivot or develop a long-term strategy. Nor can journalists accurately describe or dig into the meat of his ideas for America. Adjusting on the fly does not lead to concrete and coherent policy positions. The lack of policy clarity is due to this call-and-response electioneering that constitutes Trump’s platform.

The temptation for mainstream professional journalists is to just report the contradiction, as if reporting the mystery is enough. It is not. Headlines like “The Republican nominee offers up another baffling statement on his signature campaign issue” do little to enable undecided voters to make competent decisions. It also disables journalists from deeper analysis of the implications policy proposals might have. In fact, reporting the confusion may have another unhealthy consequence, serving to drive indecisive and uninformed voters to disregard policy entirely and elect on the basis of style rather than substance.

As we shift into what some have called a post-fact democracy, there remains the need for “real clear politics.” Whether or not journalists can navigate the wild wakes of Trump’s zigzag, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too electioneering will determine if we can choose the kind of political future we desire for America or if we must simply discover the policies we get after a November lottery.

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