Don’t make Trump the underdog

Billionaire Donald Trump has stormed onto the scene of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. While his more politically seasoned competitors on both sides of the aisle are careful and scripted, Trump is, well, Trump. He’s wildly candid and bombastic, and swings – sometimes within the same sentence – between claiming to ‘love’ certain groups of people (especially Latinos) and hurling insults at them. Anyone who has seen The Apprentice should not be surprised by this behavior. Trump also has some pretty extreme right-wing views on some issues, especially immigration (though his views on trade could actually be characterized as extreme left).

When Trump announced his presidential bid, I thought I had seen this movie before. In the run up to the 2012 election, he flirted with the idea of running and made headlines pushing the absurd ‘birther’ movement (which demanded proof of President Obama’s birth in Hawai’i) – one which many (including myself) suspected had racism lurking in its roots. Eventually, Obama produced his birth certificate and made Trump look stupid; Trump’s presidential aspirations never got off the ground.

This time around, Trump again drew attention to himself with some inflammatory racist comments. At the time he entered the race, Trump was polling outside of the top 10 in the Republican primaries, and pollsters at FiveThirtyEight.com had already written him off due to his combination of high name recognition and low popularity. After his remarks, several of his business relationships evaporated as Univision and NBC sought to distance themselves.

But then he suddenly surged in the polls; he’s now the front-runner for the Republican nomination. How did this happen?

Sadly, the fact that his extreme views on immigration and other issues may be shared by a significant fraction of the American population is probably part of it. A second reason, I suspect, is that Trump – like Bernie Sanders on the left – comes off as genuine in his beliefs and un-beholden to PAC money and other special interests. Post-Citizens United politics have become so tiring and predictable for voters of all stripes that it’s not surprising to see Trump and Sanders cutting through the noise. The third reason Trump is up in the polls, I suspect, is that he has been able to sell a narrative to some voters that he is a straight-shooting underdog – one who is just trying to tell Americans what they need to hear and give America the medicine it needs, against his own interests, while big corporations (like NBC and Univision) and the mainstream media try to shut him down.

I want to stress this last point a bit, after reading this weekend that Huffington Post has decided to only cover Trump’s campaign on their entertainment pages (instead of their political pages). As ridiculous as Trump’s statements may be, this is a bad idea. People who don’t like Trump think he’s a bully with no filter and an inflated sense of what he knows and can do. If you want Trump to leave the Presidential race, this needs to be the narrative. Don’t let him become the downtrodden, muzzled underdog. That will only increase his popularity among the hard-right, and it will only feed into the Fox News narrative that the media is biased against right-wing views.

Instead, the media should treat Trump like he is any other candidate. Give him airtime commensurate to his poll numbers. Ask him hard questions. Invite him to debate others on issues. Take him to task when he says something incorrect or insulting; lampoon his outrageous statements (especially if you’re Comedy Central). Trust that Trump’s absurdity will shine through on its own (it will). But don’t sideline him until the voters do (through their votes or the polls).

Sidelining people with opposing views has become far too common in modern politics – Stephen Harper’s government in Canada (on the right) and online shaming culture (mostly on the left) are examples. Sidelining opposition is a tactic that shows weakness. It might energize the base of people who agree with you, but it signals to undecideds that you aren’t confident you can win in a debate. Want Donald Trump out of the race? Give him a fair shot and watch him lose (he will).

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