The political media tendency to reduce electoral politics to a horse race often produces some astoundingly off-base takes.
On Wednesday morning, Axios CEO Jim VandeHei had a humdinger, declaring the 2020 election a shot-by-shot remake of 2016, in which his fellow members of the press have all but written off Trump.
???? It feels like August of ‘16 all over again. Polls show Trump losing big. Pundits proclaim he can't win. Reporters sneer at Trump voters on Twitter, cable. Why it matters: There are several signs that should give the Trump-is-toast self-assured pause. https://t.co/26il7bXS7h
— Jim VandeHei (@JimVandeHei) August 26, 2020
The widely circulated tweet met with criticism from members of the media, and those who religiously monitor them, including 2016’s most loathed prognosticator, Nate Silver.
Are there actually pundits who say Trump can't win? https://t.co/WY8zDjiKGB
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) August 26, 2020
I know of exactly zero people who think he can't win. I still give him a one in three chance of pulling it off.
He'll definitely lose the popular vote, and likely worse than he did in 2016. But he can still pull off the inside straight. https://t.co/rO3HWsh8cA
— Bradley P. Moss (@BradMossEsq) August 26, 2020
Who are the people who say he can’t win? It’s almost an axiom that an incumbent can win. Everyone should recognize he can. Hopefully it makes you work harder. https://t.co/SoFWk4crch
— Neera -Wear a Mask -Tanden (@neeratanden) August 26, 2020
No one I know thinks Trump can't win. https://t.co/rxy2iN3HO8
— Siddhartha Mahanta (@sidhubaba) August 26, 2020
While all too many media habits from the 2016 election have continued apace—for instance, regurgitating Trump’s many falsehoods and outright lies uncritically—casting his defeat as a foregone conclusion hasn’t been one of them.
Less than a day later, however, dedicated newspaper-readers woke up to this mock-ad from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
— Karen Tumulty (@ktumulty) August 27, 2020
While Noah himself earned praise on Wednesday night for his blunt assessment of how Wisconsin police treated Jacob Blake differently than Kyle Rittenhouse, the phony ad Thursday morning made VandeHei’s tweet feel prescient.
The ad, a parody of local law firms offering services a hypothetically defeated Trump might require, is a winking nod to the electoral outcome many readers of The Washington Post and The New York Times would love to see. Unfortunately, this ad from one of the premier bastions of liberal punditry makes the cardinal sin of assuming that outcome is all but assured.
The fact that the hashtag-Resistance set on Twitter ate up the ad and asked for seconds should be scary to anyone who hopes Trump proves a “soon-to-be-ex-president.” Smug complacency doesn’t win elections; it only sets the stage for disbelieving post-mortem cries of “How could this have happened?”
Topical comedy like that of the Daily Show ad has the effect of assuring those not paying close attention that everything is going to be fine. If all one sees is Trump being mocked for his clear corruption and incompetence—and not the coordinated efforts on the other side to minimize or invert that perception—they might assume this election is in the bag.
I know I sure did, the last time around.
About a year after the 2016 election, I revisited one of the last episodes of Saturday Night Live to air before that fateful night, the “David S. Pumpkins” episode. What I saw thrust me right back into the fall 2016 mindset I shared with many others.
“It’s heartbreaking to look back, knowing what we know now, and see America’s flagship political satire machine take a distorted snapshot of that moment,” I wrote. “To watch the Tom Hanks-hosted episode now is to feel trapped without motor function, no way to warn everybody involved that they will regret all of this. No way to tell Kate McKinnon that in a few short weeks, she’ll be back on this stage, singing ‘Hallelujah’ in somber elegy. No way to tell them all that the future they don’t seem to bother fearing anymore is even worse than they probably imagined.”
Watching a rerun of that episode reminded me how much the candidacy of Donald Trump felt like an errant phase we were all going through, and how one day we’d all look back on it and laugh at how close he came to actually almost winning!
The 2016 election was a horror show for millions of Americans, who learned that day there is no cosmic safety net preventing the worst outcome, just because a consensus feels it shouldn’t happen.
Seeing that Daily Show ad this morning felt like cueing up another rerun.