A shameful new image from the Trump era was recently added to the rogues’ gallery when a feral mob of white MAGA-hatted teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, surrounded, jeered, and mocked peaceful Native American protester Nathan Phillips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The student at the center of the controversy and the GOP public relations firm he hired have pushed back, insisting the whole spectacle was a big misunderstanding. And far too many journalists have embraced and amplified that spin, suggesting the episode may have been misconstrued. (It was not.)
In trying to gaslight the public over the ugly encounter, the press has simply continued its troubling tradition of coddling Trump voters and supporters.
The sad Lincoln Memorial spectacle certainly raised concerns about what’s been a media hallmark of the Trump era: publishing puff pieces about his supporters and usually whitewashing the racism that fuels his base. The Trump voter journalism genre, featuring (white) locals from red counties inside red states assembled at local diners blindly extolling Trump’s virtues (“I think he’s doing a great job”; “Hitting it out of the ballpark”), has become so bountiful, so predictable, and so never-ending that it’s turned into something of a Twitter punch line. Yet lots of leading news outlets, especially the New York Times, remain utterly obsessed with detailing the deep love between Trump and his dead-end supporters. (Actual Times headline: “These Guys Really Like Trump.”)
These GOP-friendly profiles seem to be a way for the supposedly liberal media to signal to conservatives that it’s willing to present their best side—over and over and over. And yes, the entire Trump voter newsbeat was invented out of whole cloth. Early in President Barack Obama’s first term, newsrooms weren’t fanning out to Atlanta and Chicago and Los Angeles to stock up on quotes from black voters who loved the new president. Back then, what Obama voters thought of the new president simply wasn’t considered to be newsworthy by the political press. Yet today, what Trump voters think of Trump has been deemed to be wildly important, and is covered relentlessly.
But what’s been almost universally missing from the nonstop deluge of Trump voter stories? A look into the dark crevices of Trump Nation, and an open acknowledgment that his base is often fueled by racism.
Think about the Covington Catholic High School disgrace, which happened just days before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. How many of those flowery articles about Trump voters in recent years ever even hinted at the idea that rotten racism festers in the homes of Trump supporters and is being proudly passed on to their kids? Answer: few, if any, of those articles.
Trump’s candidacy was driven by immigrant-bashing, and so too has his presidency been. But when journalists profile his faithful supporters, acknowledgment of Trump’s racist rhetoric rarely comes up. For instance, during the campaign, the press largely turned a blind eye to Trump’s racist birther crusade against Obama. If the birther charade was racist (it was), then guess what—so are Trump’s followers. According to a Public Policy poll from 2015, “66% of Trump’s supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he’s a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was.” The poll noted that “63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.”
Racism was a key spark of Trump’s presidential run, but the press shied away, opting for innocuous catchphrases like “economic anxiety” to describe the deeply regressive cultural forces that were at work.
Here’s what’s especially odd about the feel-good coverage of Trump supporters: Back in August 2016, the Times posted an unvarnished compilation video of Trump supporters at his campaign rallies as they wallowed in racist, sexist, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. (“Fuck those dirty beaners.” “Fuck political correctness.” “Fuck you, Hillary.” “Kill her!”) In that piece, the Times actually aimed an unfiltered lens and revealed Trump supporters in their own words, and it wasn’t pretty.
Since then, however, that rancid unpleasantness has been flushed down the memory hole. Instead, supporters are simply presented as hardworking Americans in search of a new voice in Washington (“I truly believe he cares about our country and wants to help everyone.”) Just look at the latest Trump voter piece from the Times, where the newspaper interviewed West Virginia supporters about the government shutdown and border security. The topic of race, as usual, was never addressed in the article. Trump’s deeply hateful and radical border agenda revolves around ripping families apart and building a medieval-style wall to keep nonwhites out. But racism? Sorry, that’s not a topic open for discussion.
Reading the Times article on West Virginia voters supporting Trump’s border insanity, complete with the Times’ nonjudgmental description of his initiatives, you would’ve thought the dry policy at the center of the shutdown controversy was akin to taxes or tariffs. There’s never even a hint that unbridled racism and white nationalism are what’s driving Trump’s mindless government shutdown, on the part of both him and his supporters.
Covington Catholic High School students recently put a hateful, public face on the MAGA movement and showed the world that unapologetic racism still fuels much of the Trump Nation.
The press can’t ignore that hard truth forever.