Over the last several days, headlines have blared Donald Trump’s claim that the presidential election is “rigged.” When he initially said this, it was clear that he meant it was being rigged by the media, through biased news coverage, as in this tweet:
Election is being rigged by the media, in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
Since then he has appropriately expanded the theme to include voter fraud, but I want to stay with the original media version. Trump is absolutely correct that the liberal press has thrown its weight behind Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, sometimes, as the Wikileaks revelations show, actively collaborating with the Clinton campaign. But Trump understandably misses a key point: the most important “rigging” of the election by the press happened during the Republican campaign season, when reporters and editors helped to make Trump the GOP nominee.
In the beginning, most people thought Trump’s presidential campaign was a joke. It was widely recognized that he would be the weakest candidate to oppose Hillary Clinton, with the possible exception of one or two no-hopers like Jim Gilmore or George Pataki. So what happened? The press made the story all about Donald Trump. He got, as others later calculated, billions of dollars worth of free publicity on television, and he dominated print coverage of the primaries as well. Other candidates had a hard time getting their messages in front of voters.
The attention that reporters paid to Trump helped even–perhaps especially–when it was negative. Being attacked by liberal journalists like Dana Milbank, to name just one of many examples, gave Trump credibility in the eyes of many Republican and independent voters.
So the liberal press built Donald Trump into the prime Republican contender, and eventual nominee. But note what the press did not do: it did not release any of the anti-Trump bombshells that seem to have clinched the election for Mrs. Clinton. NBC has had the infamous Access Hollywood tape for eleven years, but it came to light only in the last days of the campaign, when it could do the most to assure a Clinton victory. Why didn’t NBC leak the tape to the Washington Post during the primary season? In all likelihood, the answer is that the network didn’t want to damage Trump until it was too late for Republican voters to select a stronger candidate.
So Trump is right that the press is making a strong, and likely successful, effort to rig the election in favor of the Democrats. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the most important aspect of that “rigging” was relentlessly building up Trump during the primary season. If the GOP had nominated, say, Marco Rubio, he would today be cruising toward an easy victory over the appalling Hillary Clinton.