Opinion

JOANNA WEISS

Disinvite Donald Trump from the debates

Donald Trump participated in the Nov. 10 Republican debate, sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal.
Scott Olson/Getty Images/file
Donald Trump participated in the Nov. 10 Republican debate, sponsored by Fox Business and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s time to cut him off.

If CNN has any backbone or sense of civic duty, it will disinvite Donald Trump from next week’s Republican primary debate. If other TV news operations have any self-respect, they’ll do the same.

And strike Trump from the booking lists of talking-head shows. And keep him off late-night comedy TV. It’s been a good run; they’ve all squeezed ratings and advertising dollars from the Trump juggernaut. Now they need to stop treating him like an honored guest.

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This isn’t about news coverage. It’s natural that journalism outlets — radio, magazines, and yes, newspapers — spend more time and ink on Trump than less incendiary, lower-polling candidates. No one can ignore reality, or pretend that Trump’s poll numbers and his rallies don’t exist. It’s worth examining the cultural forces that have given his warped message a measurable appeal.

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But TV’s interest is on a different scale — the product of having 24 hours of airtime to fill, so that a single Trump statement plays on endless loop, and then the talking heads jammer repetitively about what he’s said. The Television News Archive, which tracks the number of times every candidate is mentioned on the cable news networks, found that Trump was cited more than 16,000 times in the past 30 days. (By contrast, Marco Rubio got just shy of 5,000 mentions on cable news during that same time period. Sure, he’s not polling as well. But Hillary Clinton is, and she got just about 6,000 cable mentions in the same time period.)

And what the TV networks have been giving Trump, as they bring him in-studio and take his calls, amounts to more than journalism — even when the anchors are pushing back. Between the heavily-promoted bookings and the knee-jerk deference, it’s a rolled-out red carpet and a gilded platform, a legitimacy beyond what he deserves.

Because in reality, Trump isn’t running a substantive campaign so much as an artful publicity machine. It’s hard to know if he truly believes in his ugly, delusional worldview, but when it comes to getting attention, he’s no dummy. He understands his brand and how to maintain it: Drop an inflammatory statement into a sleepy news cycle, then watch it crowd out every other subject.

He does the same in every debate: Stands calmly at center stage, throws out a few obnoxious one-liners, then stays mostly silent as the other candidates talk in detail about policy. Trump still gets the headlines, without breaking a sweat.

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But it’s clear that he doesn’t have anything useful to say. And the networks, who set their own ever-changing rules for debates, aren’t obliged to give him a platform.

Yes, shutting Trump out might anger his loyalists. But for the most part, they don’t trust the mainstream media anyway, or heed the mountains of fact-checking that have exposed Trump’s statements for what they are.

And these people are still a minority. Trump might have a chance to win the New Hampshire primary, given the glut of candidates who will split the mainstream vote. There’s a far-outside shot that he could win the GOP nomination, if super PAC money and egos keep the field large.

But there is zero chance that Trump will be elected president. Dick Cheney would hold his nose and vote for the Democrat in that scenario. To assume otherwise would be ignoring reality, too.

Trump isn’t a credible candidate. He’s a broader, uglier, more successful version of the guy from the “Rent Is Too Damn High Party,” a novelty act with a one-note message, playing a game with the media and the electoral process.

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The rest of us don’t have to play along.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.