The Third Debate: When Trump Goes Low, the Media Go Lower

We've had unqualified and extremist candidates for president before, but we have never had anything like Donald Trump. And it's clear that our media are not equipped to handle him.

The Third Debate: When Trump Goes Low, the Media Go Lower

Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace asks the candidates a question during the third US presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what has been most depressing about the presidential election campaign we’ve witnessed. Obviously, the central problem is that Republicans somehow nominated Donald Trump, a man who:

a) Has no relevant qualifications to be president;

b) Is ignorant about most significant policy issues;

c) Is a raging narcissist;

d) Purposely stokes prejudice;

e) Purposely stokes violence;

f) Purposely stokes sexism;

g) Purposely stokes anti-Semitism;

h) Is himself a sexual predator;

i) Is a dishonest business person;

j) Wants to give additional tax breaks to the wealthy;

k) Encourages assassination threats to his opponent;

l) Encourages a foreign power to spy on Americans and interfere with our election process;

m) Refuses to release the most basic information about his finances and his health;

n) Is a pathological liar;

o) Refuses to renounce the support of neo-nazis and other hate groups;

p) Does not understand how a bill becomes law;

q) Does not understand how the US alliance system works;

r) Does not understand how international trade works;

s) Thinks a “fence” can keep out undocumented workers;

t) Thinks Mexico would pay for such a fence;

u) Does not know that the largest number of immigrants come from India and China, not Mexico;

v) Makes wild, outlandish charges against his opponents without evidence and then denies having made them;

w) Pays no taxes;

x) Makes fun of disabled people;

y) Attacks the parents of dead US soldiers; and

z) Threatens to jail his political opponents and refuses to accept the legitimacy of the US democratic process.

My computer tells me that I have run out of letters of the alphabet, but I promise I could go on and on. I did not mention for instance, that he thinks global warming is a Chinese conspiracy to undermine US manufacturing; or that he violates the privacy of women’s changing rooms; or brags about wanting to date 10-year-olds; or sexually ogles his own daughter; or threatens to sue the media over unfavorable stories; or believes Saturday Night Live is part of a global conspiracy with the Clinton administration, the news media, the banks, George Soros and Sidney Blumenthal to steal the election for his opponent. And again, I could go on — I promise.

We have had unqualified, extremist Republican candidates before; just look at Ronald Reagan, who thought air pollution was caused by plants and trees. House and Senate races today are filled with them, as was the Republican contest for the presidential nomination. But we have never had anything like Donald Trump before.

And the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the conduct of his campaign is that our media are not remotely equipped to handle him. Just look at how low a bar veteran Washington Post political scribe Dan Balz set for Trump in order be able to congratulate him on 30 minutes worth of alleged non-craziness:

“In the opening minutes on Wednesday night, Trump seemed a different candidate from the Trump of the first two debates and the unshackled Trump on the campaign trail. He was more subdued, more focused on policy and substance, effective in making the case for himself and against his opponent. He appeared to have disciplined his worst instincts.”

This was the period when, you may recall, Trump attacked Ruth Bader Ginsburg, misled the audience about the nature of Chicago’s gun violence according to the NRA script and accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to “take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” I could go on.

Chris Wallace of Fox News is getting loads of kudos for his moderating skills in last night’s debate. See here, here, here and here. But ask yourselves, how many of the above issues did he really help illuminate? As with the previous seven presidential debates (including 2012, something about which I wrote my last Nation column), there was not a single question about global warming, which is the single biggest threat to our safety and security. And remember when, just a week ago, the media were all atwitter about Trump’s dictator-like threat to jail Clinton? How is it that Wallace already forgot to ask about that? And what was with all the questions about the size of the debt and the deficit? Yes, Pete Peterson and bunch of wealthy Washingtonians and corporate CEOs profess to care about this, but is there any evidence at all that it is a real issue for real people? Aren’t the jobs that come with growth, which requires government investment of greater concern? Is Wallace even aware of the existence of Keynesian economics? And does he know that the last two Democratic presidents have significantly reduced the deficit — Bill Clinton actually eliminated it — while under Republicans it has skyrocketed?

True, Wallace was not as bad as one might have predicted, given his affiliation with the Fox Propaganda Channel. He did not question Barack Obama’s birthplace. He did not tell Clinton not to wear pants. He did not accuse her of killing Vince Foster or planning the death of US diplomats in Benghazi. But neither did he point out the vast majority of Trump’s lies, distortions and plain crazy statements.

And finally, consider this: Yes, Donald Trump will not be president. But according to any number of reliable reports, he is likely to begin a new media corporation that will ensure that the virus (viruses?) he has unleashed into our body politic remain and grow stronger. Indeed, he already may have begun it. We will soon be living in a world where the craziness on display at Fox News will become the new center as craven media executives like CNN’s Jeff Zucker seek to placate Trump’s audience with more Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandowski — that latter of whom was being paid by Trump at the same time CNN was treating him as a honest political analyst.

I believe, with the great Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci in “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect,” but given the state of our democracy and the role our media have played in degrading it, one has to work harder every day merely to remember what is at stake and why we must continue the struggle to prevent Trump’s new normal from further sickening our country, no matter what the outcome of the election.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman [email protected] CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College "Liberal Media" Columnist, The Nation, 305 W.98th Street, 2 C-S, New York, New York, 10025, @eric_alterman New book: Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse