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The US media are still Trump’s unwitting allies

When it comes to Donald Trump, the media seem to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Coverage of Trump’s journey to and from the New York court was a cross between the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the OJ Simpson car chase. You could be forgiven for thinking a conviction was pending, although Trump’s next court date is not until December. Before then, television will have to come up with a synonym for “unprecedented”. 

To be sure, history is being made. This was the first indictment of a former US president. It could also lead to the first conviction. But the nature of the Trump charge sheet did not validate the build up. Trump’s indictment is based on the novel legal theory that his hush money payments to cover up an affair amounted to conspiracy to win an election. The legal world is divided on that. “Elephant gives birth to mouse” would be a stretch but not outrageously so.

The danger is that this is the kind of game that Trump relishes. In 2015, few sensible people thought Trump could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election though the media found him endlessly good for ratings. Trump’s “earned media” — the amount he received without paying for it — was off the charts compared to any other candidate. Today’s conventional wisdom is almost a carbon copy. Trump is seen as the easiest Republican for Joe Biden to beat next year and TV channels are once again chronicling his every move.

The climate would change if Trump were indicted for serious crimes, such as obstructing Congress, withholding highly classified documents, or attempting to subvert an election. The consensus is that one or more of these investigations will result in charges. The risk is that since Trump’s one relatively trivial indictment has been so hyped, the words to capture the remaining ones would already be used up. If everything is an outrage, eventually nothing is. The only data so far is that this indictment has boosted Trump’s standing among Republican voters.

Trump has an ability to bring out the worst in liberals as well as conservatives. Republicans are almost entirely on his side over the New York charge sheet. This includes his chief rivals for the nomination, which is a good measure of the helplessness of their dilemma. But it also includes figures like Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, and Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, who both voted to convict Trump in one of his impeachment trials. They can hardly be accused of spinelessness. Perhaps they learnt the wrong lessons from the failure of both convictions.

Did the media too? Though Trump depicts journalists as servants of a crooked state, the symbiosis between Trump and mainstream news outlets is deep. The cable TV channels boomed during the Trump years and saw ratings drop sharply after he left office. The same applies to much of the print media. Though White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts” as a euphemism for Trump’s lies, his presidency led to a surge in subscriptions to non-alternative media sources. In 2016 Les Moonves, the then head of CBS, said that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America but it’s damn good for CBS.” There is no reason to think that has changed.

We are thus faced with the paradox of American politics today. Trump keeps losing elections; yet his grip over the Republican party and America’s mindshare has not lessened. It is not obvious what can be done about it. Jailing him would provide an obvious resolution: plenty of other democracies, including Brazil, South Korea, Israel and South Africa, have imprisoned former heads of government or state on lesser charges than Trump potentially faces. But almost any realistic timetable for convicting Trump comes after the 2024 election. Moreover, there is nothing to stop a jailed Trump from running for the White House.

Which leaves Joe Biden. The president is sticking to his knitting. He has not commented on Trump’s legal woes. The view among Democratic cognoscenti is that this has been a good several days for Biden — and there are many more to come. Trump’s chances of winning his party’s nomination have grown, which gives a commensurate boost to Biden’s re-election prospects. That is probably true. But the costs of Biden’s slipping up are also higher. Trump would be the biggest beneficiary from whatever setback befell Biden. The US media would also benefit. The latter is still Trump’s worst enemy and his best friend.

edward.luce@ft.com

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