Trump proposal to ban Muslim entry: Is he playing the media?

Donald Trump's vow to ban 'all Muslim entry' to the US fits a pattern: His most extreme words often come when he has suffered a bad poll or two.

Mic Smith/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally coinciding with Pearl Harbor Day aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., on Monday. On Tuesday, Trump defended his plan for a 'total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States' by comparing it with President Franklin Roosevelt's decision to inter Japanese Americans during World War II.

Is Donald Trump playing the media like a piano?

We’d say yes, yes he is – and it does not matter very much whether the media approves of the music. Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US has received lots of negative coverage, for instance. But the key word there may be “lots” – the sheer volume of stories is likely, by itself, to shore up Trump’s political position.

Here’s where our reasoning starts: Trump’s ability to generate and even monopolize political news coverage may be unprecedented among modern primary presidential candidates.

Trump’s omnipresence is evident in a chart tweeted out on Tuesday by Washington Post reporter Jim Tankersley.

It shows that in recent weeks The Donald has gotten well over twice the television coverage of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, and far, far more than all his GOP rivals combined.

“In the last half-month, Bush, Rubio, Carson and even Clinton have basically fallen off TV news. All Trump,” Mr. Tankersley writes. 

How’s he managed this? Do we have to phrase that as a question? Trump’s stream of harsh rhetoric about his opponents (Ben Carson is “pathological”), generally debunked factual claims (thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrated on 9/11), and startling policy proposals (ban Muslim entry to US) are irresistible to journalists. They often crowd out the more traditional campaign actions of his opponents, to their dismay.

Trump surely knows this. More than one pundit has noticed that his farthest-out words often come when he has suffered a bad poll or two, as he did on Monday when a Monmouth survey showed him falling behind Ted Cruz in Iowa.

“Been boring about this before but to restate: Trump has written, in a bestselling book, how to stay in media spotlight via outrageous claims,” tweeted Brendan James of the International Business Times on Tuesday.

Theoretically the tone of the media coverage might matter here. Negative stories, read or watched closely, might cause reasonable voters to oppose Trump in the primary, right?

Except that may not be how it works in practical terms. First, outrageous is in the eye of the beholder – Trump has a hard core of supporters drawn in part by his belligerence and by his tough policies. Second, as hard as it is for the punditocracy to believe, at this point in the campaign only a minority of Americans is paying close attention. Most don’t pay attention to the daily drumbeat of political news.

That mutes the effect of tone. Celebrity aura and name recognition can still drive polls.

“In a field that still has 14 candidates, more media coverage – even negative media coverage – potentially helps a candidate to differentiate himself and thereby improve his position on the ballot test,” writes data guru Nate Silver today at FiveThirtyEight.

Thus a commentator tut-tutting about banning Muslims from coming to the US might have the opposite of his or her intended effect. It could make Trump more popular, not less.

The point here is that what and whom the media covers can make a big difference. That seems obvious, but lots of journalists believe that they’re watching something like a narrative unfold on stage, and they’re just reporting events from the audience.

As George Washington University political scientist John Sides has noted, the “narrative” of US political campaigns does not come from angels who float to earth on gossamer wings. The news media, as an institution, produces it.

“In so doing, they make many, many choices about how much to cover events and candidates during a campaign, and how to cover them,” wrote Mr. Sides in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in September. “Those choices have consequences. They’ve certainly had consequences for Donald Trump.”

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