Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 | 2 a.m.
As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is taking some time off and is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today, Brian’s friend Tom Friedman takes over the space. “Tom took the words right out of my mouth and, of course, made them so much better,” Brian said. “I commend his words to all Sun readers.”
Some healthy soul searching is taking place in newsrooms across the country these days over whether the mainstream media should be covering President Donald Trump’s every tweet and rally. My answer: Absolutely! It’s the right thing for us to do professionally, and, as this past week’s election results indicated, it’s the right thing to do politically if you want to see a check on Trump’s power.
It appears that it’s the toxic lying, bullying and unpresidential behaviors that Trump exhibits most in his rallies and tweets — which we in the media so incessantly cover — that is turning off the very moderate, best-educated Republicans and suburban women that Trump will need to hold the GOP majority in the House, let alone get re-elected.
So bring on the coverage.
America’s unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, inflation for the moment is moderate, the stock market keeps setting records, and the president is coming off a crisis-defusing summit with North Korea. And yet, the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Trump having a personal approval rating of only 43 percent, with 53 percent disapproving of his performance. And in a special election Tuesday in Ohio, the GOP House candidate — whom Trump and the entire Republican establishment went to bat for — is barely ahead of his Democratic rival in a district that has not sent a Democrat to Congress in more than three decades.
That does not speak well for Trump or his midterm prospects, but it does for the American people and for thinking Republicans. It turns out there is still a cohort of Republicans who have not sold their souls to Trump the way virtually every one of their elected representatives in Washington has done.
It turns out that there are thinking Republicans for whom character, decency and truth-telling still matter in a president. It turns out that there are thinking Republicans who have watched Trump’s Twitter rants, his disturbed performance at Helsinki and the unrestrained bile that he emits at his rallies — and the blind, ecstatic response of his core base — and found them unnerving and unworthy of their support. That is what the polls and polling stations are telling us.
Imagine how well Trump would be doing if he weren’t Donald Trump — if he weren’t such a lying jerk.
But that is exactly what he is. So bring on the coverage.
The dominant political fact of Trump’s first 18 months in office is that despite some good economic trends in the country (and yes, his precise role in engineering them remains debatable), the president has not been able to widen his coalition beyond his core 40 percent to 45 percent. It is partly because he has not even remotely tried. But it is also because the very applause lines and abusive and divisive behaviors that appeal to his base turn off more-moderate and more-educated suburban Republicans, and do nothing to attract independents or conservative Democrats.
That does not predict a cakewalk for Democrats in 2018 or 2020. They still need appealing candidates. But it does say to me that I want wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s every speech, rally, tweet and utterance, because they most reveal his character, and Trump’s character is the ceiling on Trump’s presidency — and he seems uninterested, and more likely unable, to change that.
Yes, I want every American to know that two Trump supporters were spotted at the president’s recent rally, in Ohio, wearing T-shirts that read, “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat.” That’s an interesting data point. That’s whom you’re voting with when you vote for Trump.
I want every American to hear of Trump’s tweet that CNN’s anchor Don Lemon, who is African-American, was “the dumbest man on television” and that Lemon made LeBron James “look smart, which isn’t easy to do.” Lemon was interviewing James about a school he had just opened in Ohio for underprivileged children.
I want every Republican running for office to hear every syllable of Trump’s bullying arrogance, when he warned at his Ohio rally that he destroys any GOP politician who dares to defy him, saying, “I only destroy their career because they said bad things about me and you fight back and they go down the tubes — and that’s OK.”
I want all of this heard and spread from sea to shining sea. Because though these words do rally Trump’s base, they also rally Democrats and evidently embarrass Republican moderates and alienate independents.
Veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg told me that he’s seeing signs of this is in his recent focus groups: One was with moderate Republicans, all of whom “were put off” by Trump’s behavior, and another was with “secular conservative Republicans,” half of whom were put off.
In addition, Greenberg said, the full Trump — insulting black sports heroes, threatening conservatives who dare cross him, praising Vladimir Putin and attacking the FBI — “reminds evangelical conservatives of the devil’s bargain they made in supporting him. Seeing him in all of his overreach and mania and self-absorption doesn’t make them second-guess their choice, but it makes them uncomfortable about it.”
In a close election it doesn’t take many uncomfortable moderate Republicans to just stay home to make a big difference. That’s all I am looking for, not a tsunami — that’s not in the cards. Just a little wave of disgust among GOP moderates is all that is needed to turn several key districts from red to blue.
No question that the press should not allow itself to be props at Trump’s rallies, and that can be dealt with by using a single pool camera that feeds all the networks, or reporters just sitting among the rally attendees, not in a special pen.
But the whole country needs to see every tweet, rally, word and reaction so that they can ask themselves: “Is this who I want my kids to see as our president? Are these the people with whom I want to be aligned?” It’s too late to move Trump’s core base on these questions, but I would not give up on his passive supporters. The latest polls and special elections tell us we shouldn’t.
I still believe that plenty of Americans of all political stripes are better than this president and that when given their next chance to say so, they will. Will there be enough? I don’t know.
I just know that the GOP Congress and Fox News are too compromised to ever tell Trump, “Enough.” But there are decent Republican moderates who, while they may never pull the lever for a Democrat, just might get too disgusted to vote. It’s the best hope. So let’s keep them fully informed about our president.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.