After the past three weeks, one would think that the answer to Matt Lauer’s question would be apparent. Donald Trump went to war with Fox News after the first debate, and his polling went nowhere but up in the Republican primary. He went to war with them again last night, and threw in Univision for good measure, and … well, other than in the media, Trump’s heard mostly cheers. Lauer and NBC’s Today got an “exclusive” with Trump, via phone as usual, where Lauer posed the all-but-rhetorical question:
Trump argued that Univision’s Jorge Ramos was “totally out of line,” and that had he not just jumped up and demanded to ask his question immediately, Trump would have gotten to him as well:
Donald Trump says Univision anchor Jorge Ramos was “totally out of line” during Tuesday’s press conference that saw the Spanish-language anchor temporarily removed from the event.
“I would have gotten to him very quickly,” the Republican presidential front-runner told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “This man gets up and starts ranting and raving and screaming, and honestly being very disrespectful to all the other reporters.”
Ramos isn’t exactly a wilting flower of journalism anyway. The Washington Post’s Michael Miller reports that Ramos has become at least as much an activist as a journalist, and describes him as a “conflict junkie”:
Ramos isn’t just another political reporter, however. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he has become an increasingly vocal supporter of immigration reform. It’s a role that has helped him cross over into English-language news, but also blurred the line between journalist and activist.
Ever since Trump launched his campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “drug dealers,” he and Ramos have been on a collision course. Trump has allegedly rebuffed Ramos’s repeated requests for an interview, so the journalist has taken to stalking the pol online like a hunter on safari, firing off Twitter salvos after each Trump appearance.
Ramos has admitted recently to taking “personal” offense at Trump’s immigration plan. But Tuesday’s tête-à-Trump was something deeper still.
It was a clash of conflict junkies.
In other words, one could easily criticize both men — and it won’t make much different to either of them, at least not in the short run. To answer Lauer’s question, the conflict model definitely “works” for Trump, which is one reason why head-on attacks against Trump don’t work out well for other Republican presidential hopefuls. As I write in my column at The Week, they’d be better off trying to focus on their own campaigns and wait for voters to start getting more serious after a Summer of Fun:
Trump has become the human embodiment of the internet meme Honey Badger; he just doesn’t care what people think of him. His supporters love that confidence (which is more like arrogance). Those who wonder whether Trump’s attacks on conservative media figures might alienate conservative voters miss the point of Trumpmentum. It’s not about building a conservative brand or even loyalty to a conservative agenda, but about demolishing an existing order that some voters believe has stifled real change. That applies to the media — even Fox News. Trump’s attacks give vent to grassroots frustrations at the institutions that are seen as having failed us.
Does that mean Trump is unassailable in the long run? Perhaps not. But it won’t be because he insulted media figures (even normally sympathetic ones) or got into a media war with Fox News.
Instead, at some point, voters will start looking beyond Trump’s carnival barker bravado, and start actually caring about things like policy and electability. That hasn’t happened yet. That’s why polls at this stage tend to reflect media attention and name recognition more than true political adherents. It’ll be months before voters start engaging more seriously.
If Trump can transition to being the kind of candidate who has actual policies and positions, rather than just a very loud and abrasive voice, then his popularity may well be insurmountable for other Republican candidates. But Trump’s Honey Badger identity could eventually bring him down, too. He is, to put it mildly, a self-promoter to an extreme not usually found in our politics. Voters want to feel as though the election is about them, and not about the ego of a politician. For now, it’s fun for many frustrated voters to see Trump extol himself while belittling his competitors. That may wear thin eventually. But it won’t be because Trump took on Fox. In that fight, he’s already won.
Can Trump grow into the kind of candidate who can represent something more than just his own ego and nihilism? We’ll see, but it won’t be an issue for a while yet. In the meantime, voters can still have fun sticking their thumbs in the eyes of the establishment — and put them on notice to start listening to voters rather than lecturing them.