Is Trump the Only Republican Who Can Handle the Media Onslaught?

GOP nominee thrives in a world that values pop culture over substance

Donald Trump's decades in the public eye have created an indelible brand that seems to inoculate him from attacks, writes Matt Lewis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Donald Trump's decades in the public eye have created an indelible brand that seems to inoculate him from attacks, writes Matt Lewis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 22, 2016 at 5:00am

Conventional wisdom suggests that any “generic” Republican would easily beat Hillary Clinton in November — and any other Democrat would destroy Donald Trump.

But what if that’s wrong? Increasingly, the notion that Trump could actually win seems less absurd. As I write this, the election forecasting site FiveThirtyEight says that if the election were held today, he’d have close to a 47 percent chance of winning. It’s not crazy to theorize that Trump, with all his faults, might actually be better positioned than any traditional Republican would be.

Let me explain. For years, conservatives have lamented liberal media bias. This bias becomes even more recognizable the closer we get to Election Day. And whether it’s coverage of Hillary Clinton’s fainting flap or the re-emergence of the “birther” story, the media seems to once again have put its thumbs on the scales in favor of the Democrat.

In the past two cycles, Republicans have nominated serious candidates who were thoughtful and irenic. John McCain went so far as to correct his own supporters when they suggested in 2008 that then-Sen. Barack Obama was “an Arab.” “No, ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

How did McCain’s benevolent nature benefit Republicans? “When the media got through with a good man like McCain,” writes Victor Davis Hanson in the National Review, “he was left an adulterous, confused septuagenarian, unsure of how many mansions he owned, and a likely closeted bigot.”

The next GOP nominee would meet a similar fate. “[Mitt] Romney was reduced to a comic-book Richie Rich, who owned an elevator, never talked to his garbage man, hazed innocents in prep school and tortured his dog on the roof of his car,” Hanson continues.

[Clinton Fainting Flap Reveals Media’s Liberal Bias]

To be sure, Clinton is much more vulnerable than Obama, and rising-star Republicans like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz might have fared better than retreads like McCain and Romney. But who’s to say the mainstream media machine wouldn’t have destroyed these conventional candidates, too? It’s entirely possible that the same media that turned Romney’s efforts to hire female executives into a scandal (“binders full of women!”) might have found a way to destroy, say, Rubio or Cruz in an attempt to stop the GOP from electing the first Hispanic president.

What are the odds that we wouldn’t have suddenly been treated to old allegations about Rubio’s personal use of the Florida Republican Party’s credit card — and told that this made him the most evil man in the history of the world?

Such attacks don’t seem to be working on Trump, and, it turns out, this is a huge advantage. For one thing, his refusal to bow to political correctness only excites his base (unlike McCain’s more responsible rhetoric, which elicited boos from his audience). It’s no fun to attack a guy who isn’t the least bit embarrassed or contrite. What’s more, his decades in the public eye have created an indelible brand that seems to inoculate him from attacks. His status as a legitimate celebrity (not a political one) has taught him how to manipulate the media.

Trump is increasingly at home in an irreverent world where pop culture is more important than substance. His recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, for example, was so good that it drew criticism from liberal observers who were apoplectic that Fallon dared to treat (gasp!) a Republican the same way he would treat any other guest — which is to say he didn’t have a double standard that required attacking or “otherizing” the GOP nominee.

Make no mistake, in our 21st century world, it’s vital that politicians can appear on these shows and come off well. Now, I’ve seen pols like Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie manage this, but not six weeks before a presidential election when the knives are out and sharpened. It’s possible that Rubio (being young and charming) might have been able to go on and talk about hip-hop and pop culture, or that Cruz might have gone on and done Simpsons impersonations, but these sorts of fluff interviews are generally not reserved for a Republican nominee with just a few weeks to go until Election Day.

[We’re Underestimating the Donald Trump Debacle]

So where does that leave us? No, I haven’t become a Trumpkin. I still fear that if he is elected, he will do long-lasting damage to the Republican Party and, ultimately, to America.

But if we’re talking solely about 2016, you could argue that Trump might be the only Republican who can handle the media onslaught — and who has the media smarts to manage it. Republicans who voted for The Donald in the primary wanted a street fighter who could fight fire with fire. We will soon know if their wish came true.

Roll Call columnist Matt K. Lewis is a Senior Contributor to the Daily Caller and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @MattKLewis.