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The Content Trap

As long as Donald Trump draws an audience, the media will keep focusing on him.

Donald Trump appears at an NBC Town Hall at the Today Show on April 21, 2016, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“The last refuge [of the politically impotent] is giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into—what else?—another piece of news. Thus we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.” — Neil PostmanAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

One of the recurring, damaging myths of American public life is that things are so screwed up because the people in charge have chosen to make it that way. 

The myth is persistent for many reasons, including the human tendency to blame external forces for our misfortunes, but also because the people who think they are in charge want to believe they have that kind of power. Even if you’re a screw up, you’re a screw up with clout.

We have had much discussion of late about how the news business, particularly cable news, has shaped our present political predicament and how it will shape the election to come. It is certainly true that we in the media have often been lazy, unaccountable, and slanted, but not in any strategic ways, certainly not as an industry as a whole.

Witness the long, obsessive conversation in and of the media about “learning the lessons of 2016” with Donald Trump. We’re not going to be patsies this time, no sir! This time, it won’t be billions of dollars worth of free air time for Trump and then negative, sneering coverage of his competitors driven by Trump’s own insults. 

As Trump readies a return to his 2016-style mainstream-media saturation bombing, he is making life very uncomfortable for all of those who piously promised to be better, more discerning journalists this time around. But at no place does it hit harder than at Fox News, struggling after months of bad press and now a lineup shake-up. Trump is now punishing the network that once sought to stifle his candidacy by not only giving a town hall pseudo-event that should draw big ratings, but also threatening to skip Fox’s scheduled presidential debate in August. The message is clear: Get Trump back to his place of primacy on the network or face a ratings bust later on.

The great David Drucker in this piece from last month captures the dilemma for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Friendly critics complain that DeSantis has missed a window by not declaring for president sooner and letting Trump have the floor for so long. But come on, people. Is DeSantis going to manage to have a case in civil court on a rape charge, one in criminal court for crimes related to hush money for a sex worker, embracing people who want his opponents to be executed for treason, and offering a cheering crowd his partially eaten pizza?

What was once seen as a cagey DeSantis strategy for shunning the mainstream press should perhaps be better understood as a reaction to a persistent problem: He’s not nearly as lucrative to cover as Trump. DeSantis figured out how to drive a lot of coverage as the Disney-dueling culture warring governor of Florida, but what could he possibly do to avoid the fate of Trump’s 2016 foes who just couldn’t manage being lewd, crazy, and loud enough to provide the profits that would get news organizations to change their coverage? 

We are right back where we started: Trump drives coverage, coverage drives polls, polls drive narrative, narrative drives reality. What many analysts and certainly the media organizations themselves fail to understand, though, is that this is a case of spontaneous order, not strategy.

It was never reasonable to think that CNN or Fox or any of the other mainstream outlets would forgo profits by shunning Trump. Jobs and bonuses are on the line, to say nothing of celebrity and status. The only way that will change is if the audience ever tires of the Trump show, which, for now, looks like it’s roaring into Season 9.


Keeping Kennedy in Context 

President Biden is expected to handily capture his party’s nomination, just like almost every other incumbent president who has sought re-election. A flurry of recent polls, however, seem to show Biden in a weaker position among Democrats than many initially expected. Spiritual adviser and 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson has broken 10 percent in some surveys, while conspiracy enthusiast and famous-named Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has consistently been around the 20 percent mark. 

The polls prompted a rash of media speculation across the political spectrum, from Jacobin to National Review. Could Biden really lose to a minor progressive challenger? Are Democrats suddenly embracing the anti-vax movement en masse? To the chagrin of hot-take aficionados everywhere, here’s a bucket of cold water: There are many legitimate concerns about Biden, but his primary challengers are not real threats.

Let’s take a closer look. In a recent Economist/YouGov poll, RFK Jr. received the highest net favorability rating of any politician included in the survey. Unlike anyone else in the battery, he scores equally well across party lines. Republicans actually like him slightly more than Democrats. For a candidate running on the Democratic ticket in a highly polarized electorate, those numbers are pretty darn fishy.

An Echelon Insights poll found that 94 percent of voters have heard of RFK Jr. His “never heard of” score was lower than those of big-name, statewide-elected officials including Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and Ron DeSantis. 

When pollsters toss out the Kennedy surname to Biden-weary Democrats, a chunk of primary voters leap at the chance to ditch their octogenarian incumbent in favor of Camelot nostalgia. But we should not construe RFK Jr.’s inflated poll numbers as legitimate support for his campaign. 

There is probably a segment of the far left that genuinely supports Marianne Williamson, but her share, too, is distorted. Recall that in the wide-open 2020 contest, she withdrew before the primaries officially began and received only 22,334 total votes. Despite what these polls of middling quality suggest, 30 percent of the Democratic electorate has not suddenly fallen in love with two fringe candidates. Biden is still well on his way to a clear and convincing renomination. 

Of course, anti-incumbent protest votes are a time-honored tradition in American politics. In 1996, for example, conspiracy theorist and perennial candidate Lyndon LaRouche won more than 500,000 votes even as Bill Clinton cruised to the nomination. LaRouche even captured a pair of delegates from Louisiana and Virginia. 

More recently, protest votes tend to reflect shifting political coalitions. In many now-Republican states that had once been bedrocks of the New Deal Democratic coalition, there are tens of thousands of registered Democrats who haven’t voted blue since the Clinton-Dole contest. These are die-hard MAGA folks who just haven’t gotten around to switching their party registration. Take West Virginia (Trump +39) and Kentucky (Trump +26). Both are ruby-red, but partisan voter registration would suggest they are toss-ups. Republicans hold just a 6-point registration advantage in West Virginia and the two parties are about tied in Kentucky. 

These Democrats in registration only were obvious in the 2012 primary: Barack Obama earned just 60 percent in the West Virginia primary. The other 40 percent went to Keith Judd, a convicted felon serving a sentence of more than 17 years for extortion. We will hear from these voters once again in 2024, but their votes are hardly indicative of Biden’s standing in the party. 

Only rarely do incumbents face serious primary challenges. In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy launched a campaign against then-President Jimmy Carter. After months of turbulent intra-party debate, Carter was renominated at a contested convention, but not before Kennedy won 12 contests and 7.3 million votes. Kennedy’s campaign gained traction because of his appeal to the disaffected liberal wing of the party and was buoyed by Carter’s historically low approval ratings. Biden, however, has already locked up the support of prominent lefty Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. His polling numbers, too, are much better than Carter’s were in the summer of 1979. Lacking a clear ideological lane, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s primary challenge will ultimately resemble Lyndon LaRouche’s far more than Uncle Ted’s 44 years earlier.

Next year Joe Biden will likely cede hundreds of thousands of votes to primary opponents—just as Obama and Clinton did before him. In places like West Virginia and Kentucky, his vote share might even drop dangerously close to a plurality. But a 1980 redux this is not.—Nate Moore


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STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 42.4%
Average disapproval: 54.0%
Net score: -11.6 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.6 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 1.0 points

[Average includes: Fox News: 44% approve-55% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 43% approve-50% disapprove; CBS News: 43% approve-57% disapprove; NBC News: 41% approve-54% disapprove; Reuters/Ipsos: 41% approve-54% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: TOLKIEN’S TIME TRAVELING HOBBITS

Big Think: “This interpretation argues that the various regions of Middle-Earth visited in The Lord of the Rings were inspired by, and intended to represent, specific moments in English history. … The history of the Shire mirrors the German settlement of Britain. The three hobbit clans that are said to have come to the Shire from the East … correspond to the Germanic tribes who traversed the English Channel from northern Germany and Denmark during the 5th century AD: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. … In Rohan, the names of people and places are pulled exclusively from Old English, the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons until the 11th century. … It isn’t so much a hobbit’s passion for food, drink, or pipeweed that makes them worthy of the writer’s admiration, but their lack of personal ambition, their opposition to change, and their insistence on living a simple life of peace and quiet. … If the English returned to their hobbit ways, Tolkien suggests, modern-day England would look more like the Shire and less like Mordor.”


TRUMP TRIES ESTABLISHMENT PLAY TO SMOTHER DESANTIS

Politico: “Despite the legal turmoil surrounding him, Trump has been methodically undercutting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — snatching up congressional endorsements, blasting attack ads and dominating news cycles. It’s a campaign operation characterized by an unusual level of organization and discipline. … ‘Trump came to New Hampshire the other day [and] rolled out 51 endorsements,’ said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chair. … By comparison, he said, ‘the DeSantis people are rookies.’ … But it’s too soon for DeSantis supporters to panic. … The [DeSantis] machine begins with a deep budget, huge fundraising potential and a team of loyalists hiring staff in critical nominating states. Never Back Down, a super PAC formed by ex-Trump staffer Ken Cuccinelli, has raised $33 million so far.”

DeSantis PAC takes the bait from Haley: Politico: “It came as a surprise to some top Republicans this week when the well-funded super PAC supporting DeSantis turned its fire on Nikki Haley, a candidate still registering in the low-single digits in national polls. … The move suggested a shifting dynamic in the contest: With DeSantis falling further behind Trump in national and early-state surveys, his allied super PAC is trying to ensure that the primary remains a two-way race. … [The] anti-Haley offensive came after the former South Carolina governor took a shot at DeSantis during an interview on Fox News for his heavy-handed approach toward Disney and suggested the theme park relocate several hours north to her home state.”

Precursor to a 2024 bid, Pence launches PAC: Politico: “A super PAC backing an expected Mike Pence presidential bid is planning to launch in mid-May, while his campaign is ramping up talks with consultants and activists in early nominating states… The formation of the PAC would serve as the prelude to an official campaign that is betting heavily on performing well in Iowa.”

BIDEN STRUGGLES TO WIN BACK LATINOS

Politico: “Many point to the fact that Biden announced Julie Chávez Rodríguez, a Latina, would serve as his 2024 campaign manager, as a sign that he’s serious about reaching [Latino] voters. … But how will his reelection effort adjust after experiencing some difficulty recruiting his 65 percent share of the Latino vote in 2020? … Republicans are keen to expose any fissures between Biden and Latino voters. They have adopted aggressive media strategies to reach that voting bloc and accused Democrats of misunderstanding the fundamental issues that animate them. … The stakes for Biden are high. … [T]here are doubts about whether he’ll be able to replicate that multiracial excitement, even if he might face off against Trump again. His favorability has dropped across the board since last year, falling nearly 30 points among Latinos in some polling. … Both parties argue that they made the most significant inroads with those communities last year.”

DEMS DRAW FIVE-STAR RECRUIT TO TACKLE CRUZ 

Wall Street Journal: “Rep. Colin Allred (D., Texas), a former professional football player who later worked in the Obama administration, said he was challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in what is seen as a long-shot bid to unseat the polarizing Texas lawmaker next year. … Mr. Allred, who represents a suburban Dallas district, won his seat from a Republican in the 2018 Democratic wave. … Texas and Florida are the two GOP-held Senate seats where Democrats are hopeful they can be competitive. In both states, however, Democrats are still viewed as the underdogs. … A football linebacker, Mr. Allred was a star at Baylor University [in Waco, Texas] and played in the National Football League for several seasons for the Tennessee Titans.”

Mega MAGA Marchant jumps in Nevada Senate race: New York Times: “Jim Marchant, a vocal election denier and Trump ally who lost his bid for Nevada’s secretary of state in last year’s midterm elections, declared his candidacy on Tuesday for the Senate in a swing state contest that could decide control of the chamber in 2024. Mr. Marchant, a Republican, is seeking to challenge Senator Jacky Rosen, a moderate Democrat who is in her first term. No other high-profile Republicans have entered the contest so far. … Mr. Marchant, 66, a former one-term assemblyman, was also part of Nevada’s alternate slate of pro-Trump electors who sought to overturn Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory in the state in 2020.” 

Will Manchin’s business support wither if he faces Justice?: Forbes: “The West Virginia 2024 U.S. Senate race [is] set up to match Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, and Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat. … Justice is a walking contradiction: his coal interest epitomizes big business despite his criticisms of industry and the tax relief they want — the same type of populism Trump used to appeal to the working class. … For his part, Manchin has perfected the art of walking down the political middle, using that skill to bridge the divide on some issues between Republicans and Democrats. But in West Virginia’s 2024 general election, his opponent will portray him as a Democratic loyalist.”

Cardin to retire, Dems line up for shot at blue seat: Politico: “Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin will not seek reelection in 2024 … Democrats from all corners will consider running for a safe seat that’s also within driving distance of the Capitol — as plum a gig as you’ll find in politics. 

Leading pro-life group sets 15-week litmus test: Washington Post: “[SBA Pro-Life America] will no longer back House or Senate candidates who don’t support legislation that would prohibit most abortions at 15 weeks, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, told Theodoric last week — the same standard SBA is applying to presidential candidates. … The group’s decision creates a new litmus test for antiabortion lawmakers that many of them might not pass. Just 101 House Republicans — less than half of the conference — co-sponsored a bill last year introduced by Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) to restrict abortion nationwide at 15 weeks gestation. … While some Republicans might support the bill even though they didn’t sign on, others say it’s a bridge too far. … Other Republicans in swing districts who secured SBA’s endorsement last year back the 15-week bill.”

BIG-MONEY KENTUCKY PRIMARY TURNS NASTY

Decision Desk: “[F]or this November’s elections, the top Republican target is likely a Democratic incumbent Governor in the deep-red commonwealth of Kentucky. … Meanwhile, Governor Andy Beshear also managed to become extraordinarily popular in this state despite his partisan affiliation. … A dozen Republican candidates are competing for the chance to take on Gov. Beshear… There are two top contenders who’ve pulled away from the rest of the pack: Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former UN Ambassador Kelly Craft. … Cameron is already explicitly running against Beshear. … Conversely, Craft is going after Cameron for not doing enough to protect Kentucky coal plants. It’s all part of a TV ad offensive that’s being fueled by $7 million worth of self-funding. … An April Emerson Poll put her just six points behind Cameron, 30% to 24%… Kentucky’s primary is set for May 16th.”

BRIEFLY

Georgia to pass on early primary, sticking with Super Tuesday —Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Rep. Barabara Lee draws support from broad coalition of House Dems in crowded California primary—The Hill

Census says black voter turnout cratered in 2022—Washington Post

Presley rakes in $1.3 million for long-shot Mississippi bid—Mississippi Today

WITHIN EARSHOT: NO TRUTH SOCIAL POST FOR YOU

“There is another 20 percent that care about who [Trump] endorses but that’s not going to be the decision maker. And then there’s probably another 60 percent of the party that doesn’t care who he endorses.”—Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a frontrunner for the GOP’s Ohio Senate nomination, plays down the value of a Trump endorsement in a secret recording from a closed-door political event.  


MAILBAG

“In looking back on Trump’s first term in office, it seems like one of the main reasons he had some success is that he surrounded himself with quite a few people who knew what they were doing. Toward the end of his term and in the years since, though, it seems like he’s distanced himself from many of them. If Trump is re-elected, do you think he can put together a competent Cabinet to run the country well or would he be more inclined to opt for people that will just tell him what he wants to hear?”—Ryan Denison, Tyler, Texas

I think one of the biggest dangers in a Trump restoration is how deep he might have to dig for officials. In the first Trump term there were lots of people who, to various degrees, opposed Trump on policy and, most certainly, on the protocols of executive power. People like Elaine Chao, James Mattis, John Kelly, Nikki Haley, Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr, and H.R. McMaster all joined the Trump administration with the intent—substantially realized in many cases—of fashioning a normal, Republican administration out of the chaos of Trump’s ascension to power. The lesson they learned was that even when they were mostly able to keep the car out of the ditch, the cost of working for Trump was personally too great: in investigations, potential criminal charges, and, quite often, in Trump’s wrath. Combine the disincentives for normal, ethical people to work for Trump with Trump’s own desire for vengeance against those who did not go along with his effort to steal a second term, and you have a very small pool of potential candidates. Trump is now well-versed in the ways in which the Republican mainstream managed to control him before and will make sure to surround himself with absolute loyalists. Plus, with no particular allegiance to the party and being a lame duck upon entry, Trump would have little incentive to cooperate with GOPers or otherwise curb his prodigious appetites. Trump beyond the reach of voters and with lots of scores to settle could make for very rough times.    


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the nuanced Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: THEY LIVE, JACK  

President Joe Biden looks on during a state visit welcoming ceremony for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on the South Lawn of the White House on April 26, 2023. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden looks on during a state visit welcoming ceremony for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on the South Lawn of the White House on April 26, 2023. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Managing Editor Rachael Larimore has been very, very good to you people with her photo selections in recent weeks, but this one was 24-karat gold. So fast was the resulting embarrassment of riches that it truly was hard to choose. But our winner managed to be a little edgy without being mean and work in a reference to cult-classic 1980s cinema. Well done!

“I’m here to take names, and get re-elected. And I don’t remember names.”—Jack Funke, Poplar Bluff, Missouri

Winner, Wild, Wild Wilmington Division:

“Well, if it isn’t Corn Pop.”—Paul Booth, Marietta, Georgia

Winner, In His Pints, Division:

“Whoa … that is one sweet gallon of chocolate-chip mint.”—Nathan Wurtzel, South Riding, Virginia

Winner, Ain’t Skerritt Division:

“I’ll fly with you, Viper.”—Robert Culwell, Denver, Colorado

Winner, Facial Recognition Hardware Division:

“Man, that reporter doesn’t look like this crib sheet.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Dirty Joey Division:

“I know what you’re thinking.  Is he 79 or is he 80?  Well, to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I kind of forgot myself.  So the question you’ve gotta be asking yourself is do you feel lucky?  Well, do you punk?”—Bob Lepine, Little Rock, Arkansas

Winner, Shaken and Stirred Division:

“Licensed to kill, Jack.”—Bob Goldman, Gilroy, California

Winner, Gros Michel Division:

“You remind me of Big Mike. Big Mike always used to bring me these wonderful bananas, he’d say ‘Joe, you’ll never get a better banana than Big Mike.’ And no malarkey, he was right!”—Ben Schmitt, Richland, Washington

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


HE’S THE WURST 

AP: “A German court said Wednesday that a landlord sunbathing naked in the courtyard of his building wasn’t a reason for his tenants to reduce their rental payments. The case involved a building in an upmarket residential district of Frankfurt, which included an office floor, rented by a human resources company. The company withheld rent because it objected, among other things, to the landlord’s naked sunbathing. In response, the landlord sued. The Frankfurt state court rejected the company’s reasoning. … The court said that the spot where the landlord sunbathed could only be seen from the rented office by leaning far out of the window. It also said the tenant failed to prove that he took the stairs to the courtyard unclothed. ‘On the contrary, the plaintiff stated credibly that he always wore a bathrobe which he only took off just before the sun lounger,’ it said.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.