Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on how the media seems confused by polls that not only fail to show former Vice President Joe Biden surging but some showing Trump pulling ahead with voters. The problem is that the media has never shown any real interest in understanding Trump voters, preferring to stereotype them as racists, as done in a recent Washington Post column. The truth might be found in a famous Stanford experiment called “Bobo the Clown.”
Here is the column:
Various media outlets are struggling with recent polls that not only show President Trump at the same popularity as this time last year but actually rising in states like Ohio. When one poll found him leading by 7 points in battleground states, John King cautioned viewers to “be careful not to invest too much in any one poll” especially amid the coronavirus. It was a CNN poll and, while Biden leads in other polls, it is not unique.
The media seems honestly confused. It was not supposed to work this way. With unrelentingly negative coverage of an impeachment, a pandemic, and an economic collapse, voters were supposed to be angry. There is even a psychological model for such social cognitive learning or conditioning called “Bobo the Clown” and, while this experiment by psychologist Albert Bandura focused on children, these polls suggest that conditioning does not work nearly as well in politics as it does on playgrounds.
In 1961, Bandura used a goofy inflatable clown named Bobo and had children watch adults as they acted aggressively toward it. Soon the children followed the adults’ example and beat the clown. Conversely, when children watched the clown being treated without aggression, they were less aggressive toward it.
For many voters, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are not so funny clowns, and voters are being conditioned by some in the media to treat one aggressively and the other not aggressively. It is not the first attempt at media conditioning: In 2016, when every poll indicated that voters wanted outsider candidates, Democratic leaders pushed through one of the two most unpopular presidential candidates in history, Hillary Clinton.
She was beaten by the other most unpopular figure on the Republican side, Trump. Yet, after largely positive treatment of Clinton and correspondingly negative coverage of Trump, the election results stunned experts who predicted an easy win for Clinton — and why not? Voters had been exposed to unyielding, continual media conditioning against Trump.
The conclusion of the media today appears to be that the scathing treatment in 2016 was not aggressive enough. Trump is routinely called an actual clown by some in the media. More importantly, there are now consistent attacks on Trump supporters. Washington Post “conservative columnist” Jennifer Rubin has declared that Trump supporters as a whole are racists. That common stereotyping of Trump supporters is uncontested, even as the media objects to Trump’s generalizations about other groups.
Columnist Leonard Pitts wrote a recent column entitled, “No, it’s not the economy, stupid. Trump supporters fear a black and brown America.” The narrative has moved beyond Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” to now portraying all Trump supporters as open racists. “Make America Great Again” hats are denounced by academics as the symbol of “modern day hitlerjugend” and hate speech.
It is all part of media-cognitive learning, and it is working in a curious way. Recent polls show Trump at the exact same spot as he was last year, with roughly 43 percent support. In Ohio he actually is ahead by 3 percentage points in a survey from Emerson College and Nexstar Media; he and Biden are in a statistical dead heat in Wisconsin. In other words, as in 2016, the media campaign is forcing Trump supporters into the closet, but not away from Trump.
Meanwhile, the media has been working hard at non-aggressive treatment of Biden. His frequent gaffes are quickly dismissed; when he was accused of sexual assault, the media reluctantly noted the story. Even when Biden recently espoused a conspiracy theory that Trump was going to halt the November election, the media called it a “prediction” and ignored that it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution.
At the end of last year, the Media Research Center found that network evening news was 96 percent negative against Trump. The drumbeat has only increased with impeachment and pandemic coverage this year. Despite such saturated messaging, polls show that the number of voters expressing strong “enthusiasm” for Biden is wallowing at just 24 percent, while Trump remains at 53 percent. Biden is just 3 points ahead of Trump in the most recent polls, actually behind where Clinton was in 2016. The reason may be that the anti-Trump narrative is so overwhelming that voters feel they are being played like the kids in the Bandura experiment.
Consider again the recent attack of the Post’s Rubin on most Republicans. Rubin lashed out at the immigration freeze ordered by Trump during the pandemic; however, she was not satisfied with denouncing the policy as a political stunt to appeal to the unemployed. She declared: “No doubt Trump’s base is primarily motivated by racism. This is why Trump does this.” The statement captures the accepted, unhinged bias against all Trump supporters in the mainstream media.
I did not vote for Trump, and I have regularly criticized him in columns and blog posts. However, I have watched the stereotyping of Trump supporters at media conferences for years. It suggests that roughly 63 million people in this country who voted for Trump in 2016 are knuckle-dragging racists. It ignores the fact that Hillary Clinton had record negative polling before the nomination and was widely viewed as pathologically inauthentic.
Recently, polls show 85 percent of Republicans support Trump. Thus, according to Rubin, 85 percent of Republicans (and roughly 10 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of independents) — in other words, almost half of America — are primarily motivated by racism. Does that track with any sense of reality? There are a host of reasons for these voters to support Trump other than racism.
What is not being discussed much in the media is that people might have non-racist reasons for supporting Trump. The fact is that Trump has a curious record: He has been repeatedly (and correctly) chastised for untrue statements, and yet he has one of the best records for actually keeping campaign promises — the crackdown on immigration, building of the border wall, pro-life policies and appointments, selection of conservative jurists, tax cuts, regulation rollbacks, opening up areas to oil drilling.
These and many other aspects of his administration are the most controversial but also are the long-held wish list of conservatives going back to Ronald Reagan. Indeed, while 85 percent of Republicans support Trump, a new poll shows that 23 percent would like to see someone else as their nominee. Yet, Rubin and others simply dismiss all Trump supporters as monolithic, pathological racists.
Thus, polls indicate that the unending attacks on Trump and his supporters in the media are not conditioning but, instead, are repelling voters. They are fulfilling his narrative that voters cannot trust the media. Many voters may still view both Trump and Biden as over-inflated clowns, but they resent being continually conditioned to hit one clown and hug the other. Indeed, if Trump is reelected, he may have the media to thank.