Donald Trump has finally won the Republican Party’s formal nomination to run for US president in the elections due later this year. However, less than a year ago top US media houses, known for their immense research and credibility, had dismissed his campaign as a joke, an anomaly and a non-starter.
When Trump began to gather the numbers, the same media dismissed him as racist, sexist and a buffoon. Trump, meanwhile, stuck to a vicious, anti-establishment, politically incorrect and an ‘OMG, I can’t believe he said that’ campaign outlining proposals like building a thick wall to keep out Mexicans and banning Muslims. Notably, he conducted this campaign in an uber-politically correct land where you don’t call fat people fat (you call them big, whatever that means).
The US media, comprising smart people from Ivy League colleges with decades of experience, saw all this as a passing fad. Trump’s fall, they felt, was imminent. C’mon, how can you be president with that fake hairstyle?
And yet, Trump won primary after primary, and is now one of the two candidates running for president. I have no view on whether a Trump win will be good for America or the world at large, as it is too complex a discussion. Neither can one say if he will win, though being in the final two does mean he has a real chance. The purpose here is to understand how the most sophisticated media houses in the world got it so wrong. The original hypothesis that only uneducated, clueless and stupid weirdos supported Trump turned out to be completely flawed. As per current poll data, near half of America supports Trump. It is simply impossible to have so many stupid people in any, let alone the most powerful nation in the world.
There are many reasons why the media missed his rise. One, it is filled with liberals, often from elite schools with a certain kind of worldview. These people then hire juniors in their channel or newspaper who match their own worldview. Over time, the media house becomes an incestuous pool of think-alike liberals who lose track of the general population. It is these people who often say, “But everybody hates Trump.” No, not everybody does. Only people around your cubicles, people you meet for drinks after work, and your friends on Facebook do. Believe it or not, that’s a tiny bubble and not `everyone’.
Interestingly, the same thing happened in Modi’s election to the PM’s post. In 2011 and 2012, almost all English media houses in the country regarded Modi as persona non grata, let alone a serious PM candidate. His popularity, rise and appeal were missed for several years, until the media finally corrected itself and understood the general sentiment.
The rise of Trump, in fact, can now be explained much better. Americans are sick of the image-managed political establishment. They are tired of being so politically correct all the time, which has made them fake and unable to say what they feel. The lower economic sections find existing politicians too slick and incapable of improving their lives. Trump’s apparent lack of taste and class (according to the elitists) actually endears him to these sections, which relate to him more than to any other candidate. As far as Trump’s fake claims, exaggerations and vicious attacks are concerned, they are real, but that’s no different from any other politician who may simply do it in a more polished manner.
There is an important lesson for us Indians and the media here. India’s class markers are quite distinct and deep. The various economic classes mix far less here than they do in the US. If the US media could get it wrong, the Indian media is more likely to do so. Already, there is deep mistrust about Indian media on social media platforms. Derogatory terms like ‘presstitute’ have arisen from this same mistrust which, though unfair, show how the general population doesn’t feel the media represents them.
Media houses and political parties always need to keep an ear to the ground to understand the social sentiment. The rapid rise of Hardik Patel’s movement, for example, took everyone by surprise. Media houses should not just yearn to hire graduates from elite Delhi University colleges (which frankly now only take in nerds with their insane cutoffs), but also people who understand India. Political parties should know what people want rather than trust media reports. We as people should look beyond our Whatsapp groups and Facebook bubble to know what the world is really all about.
By Chetan Bhagat