As I was saying the other day, when Donald Trump visited the Tribune editorial board they must have laid in an extra row of chairs. Every writer itches for a piece of Trump. If you think you've got the chops, Trump's the speed bag where you show them off.
Aside from the news he makes—which is plenty, because if it's Trump making it it's news—he's irresistible to columnists. Consider the Wednesday papers I read. A full-page article in the Sun-Times (by Rick Hampson and courtesy of USA Today) wondered, "What explains the appeal of Donald Trump?" (identified at the top of the article as a "twice-divorced, thrice-married, gold-plated New York real estate buccaneer").
The Tribune's Perspective page was dominated by syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg's explanation of why "Trump is a miserable deal for the GOP." ("He's as promiscuous with his mouth as he is with the Trump brand," says Goldberg.) And the Tribune's Clarence Page found it possible to write generously of Rick Perry by comparing the "olive branch" Perry holds out to minority constituencies to Trump's "xenophobic rants."
Let's turn to the New York Times. The left side of the op-ed page was occupied by a conservative guest essayist, Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Wehner described Trump as a man of "erratic and conspiratorial temperament" who is a "pernicious figure on the American political landscape."The left side of the page carried carried a piece by Times columnist Frank Bruni headlined "The Wasted Gift of the Donald."
Gift to the Republicans, that is. By not calling him out "as the bully and bigot that he is," said Bruni, his Republic opponents for president are blowing a "perfect chance to rehabilitate and redeem the party."
The question all these pieces—and many, many more—collectively pose is why, if Trump is such a miserable nincompoop, everyone's lining up to write about him. Yes, he's come in second among Republicans in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, but as USA Today observed, his notoriety is probably responsible for that. His 12 percent share of Republican support—likely a high-water mark—won't get him anywhere near the White House.
But few things are more self-perpetuating than coverage. Acknowledging the excess, Bruni began his Wednesday column by allowing that "I keep reading that Donald Trump is wrecking the Republican Party." He keeps reading it because every writer in America with an ounce of self-importance thinks it's up to him or her to personally deliver this news. Bruni's advice to the GOP is to exploit the obsession. "If they had any guts, they could use him," said Bruni of Trump's Republican rivals. "They could piggyback on the outsize attention that he receives, answering his unhinged tweets and idiotic utterances with something sane and smart, knowing that it, too, would get prominent notice."
Let's unpack this sentence. Trump is getting "outsize attention"—that is, way too much. He's getting it, as Bruni doesn't acknowledge but doesn't need to, from us, the media. And it's going to continue because—well, because we just can't help ourselves. So take advantage of us! Since everything Trump says is news, everything said about Trump is also news, and any candidate who has a lot to say about Trump will get "prominent notice." If you have a lot to say about war, the economy, or public health don't expect us to pay any particular attention. But preface these views with, "Contrary to what the buffoon with the comb-over is preaching . . . " and watch us pick up our pencils!
Bruni's column performs a huge service because it offers the media a new justification for continuing to cover Trump as somebody important. He's important because he's how the media can take the measure of the candidates who actually deserve to be covered. Surveying the landscape, Bruni dourly observes: "As in 2012, Republicans can't summon the courage to take on the dark heroes of the party's lunatic fringe." Which, in 2016, means Trump. So hold their feet to the fire, media. Rate every speech a Republican gives, and every debate, on a Trump-o-meter.
Expect Trump to like the idea of a Trump-o-meter, to build one and trademark the name.