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Trump and the Media’s Prisoner’s Dilemma

Journalists have Trump on full blast after the results of the midterms. The popular narrative is that the relatively good results for Democrats were a repudiation of Trump. There is a good bit of evidence for this. Many candidates who ran for federal office and positioned themselves as Trump allies lost seats they were expected to win.

The evidence is somewhat of a mixed bag, though. After all, some of the Republicans’ biggest wins (such as in Florida) seemed to be driven by candidates like Ron DeSantis who are clearly members of the Trump family tree of politics. Regardless, the narrative that Trump is the cause of failure dominates the news cycle.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran a barrage of anti-Trump articles the week after the elections, including one from Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence.

But will these attacks hurt Trump? It seems unlikely. While Republican voters may finally decide Trump is more of a detriment than an asset, it’s unlikely the media will help that along. If anything, legacy media might be his greatest asset.

Trump’s Anti-media Base

It’s no secret that a significant portion of Republican voters have antipathy for the mainstream media and the establishment more generally. This anti-establishment sentiment was highlighted by Michael Moore as a reason for his 2016 prediction of Trump’s win. As Moore pointed out,

“…millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. Just because it will upset the apple cart and make mommy and daddy mad.”

After Trump’s win, a myriad of YouTube videos like this one were put out to dunk on media commentators who laughed at the possibility of Trump winning in 2016.

If anything, the media acts as an energizing force for Trump. By constantly scolding his supporters (or potential supporters), media personalities fuel these people’s desire to support Trump out of spite. The constant coverage also provides millions of dollars worth in free publicity.

In short, Trump is somewhat like an inflammatory campus preacher. If you’ve been to college in the last couple of decades, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered one. They hold inflammatory signs and yell at passersby trying to provoke reaction. On my undergraduate campus they held a sign which read, “you deserve hell” and yelled at girls in immodest clothing.

If everyone ignored campus preachers, they’d stop coming. The whole purpose of the campus preacher is to ignite controversy and use peoples’ desire to fight back as a way of drawing students in to listen.

But students have too much fun fighting with them. They can’t help themselves.

In this way, the media is suckered too—by Trump. To see how, let’s use a simple example.

Imagine there are two news channels—MBC and ZNN. Assume those who manage the network are ideologically biased against Trump (it’s hard to imagine, but try your best).

They have to decide whether to cover Trump or not. We can think of four scenarios which describe the results of their decisions.

Scenario 1

If both MBC and ZNN cover Trump and insult him nonstop, this energizes his base and helps him get elected. In that case, let’s say the pundits on those channels who dislike Trump would rate their satisfaction with that result as a 1 out of 10. In other words, assuming they’re biased against Trump, his winning would be unsatisfying for them.

Scenario 2

On the other hand, if both stations decide to essentially ignore Trump, his base doesn’t get energized as much. It’s not much fun casting a Trump vote if you don’t feel like it’s subversive. In this case, Trump doesn’t get elected.

MBC and ZNN hosts are happy Trump lost. Though, like the students enraged at a campus preacher, they’re a bit unhappy they didn’t get to argue with him. In this case, the pundits for each network rate their happiness as an 8 out of 10.

Scenario 3

But now let’s say MBC pundits decide they want to throw a few zingers at Trump. They dislike him, and want people who support him to feel bad. As long as ZNN doesn’t do the same, potential Trump voters don’t feel like the whole media establishment is out to get them.

This is the best of all possible worlds for MBC. They get to make fun of Trump and his base doesn’t get energized because half of the media (ZNN) is at least silent on the matter. This is a 10 out of 10 rating for MBC.

ZNN is unhappy with this result because they could now be perceived as the pro Trump network. This perception would be their worst result at 0 out of 10. Even if this outcome was better for ZNN than the “Trump is elected” outcome, the result of our example would be the same. It seems reasonable to believe being perceived as pro-Trump is the worst case for those with anti-Trump feelings.

Scenario 4

This scenario is the same as scenario 3 except it is flipped so ZNN throws anti-Trump zingers while MBC is silent. Trump’s base isn’t as energized and he doesn’t win, but MBC worries they are perceived as supportive of Trump. ZNN rates their satisfaction as 10/10 and MBC rates their satisfaction as 0/10.

The Media’s Dilemma

The problem is now clear. If both stations ignore Trump, they receive satisfaction they rate as 8. But, independently, they can improve their satisfaction to 10 by hurling a few insults at their ideological enemy.

But when everyone starts hurling their insults, the moral indignation of the press becomes so annoying that people on the margin vote for Trump out of spite for the media. “We’re not gonna take it” becomes a salient rallying cry.

I believe the illustration above, though simple, is exactly the dilemma that faces the media. In economics, this sort of analysis of given players, strategies, rules, and payoffs is known as game theory. And this particular game where players’ individual incentives put them at odds with a better result in this manner is known as the prisoner’s dilemma.

Here is a formal illustration of the example above.

Table 1– The Media’s Dilemma

Each of the four boxes with numbers represents one of the four scenarios above. The blue numbers represent ZNN’s satisfaction with each result, and the red numbers represent MBC’s satisfaction with each result.

If both stations could agree to ignore Trump, they’d be able to both have 8 satisfaction. But because they can improve to 10 by hurling insults individually, they both decide to hurl insults. This energizes the Trump base, leading to a Trump win which results in both stations having 1 satisfaction.

Why is this referred to as a prisoner’s dilemma? The logic that underlies this situation is the same as the logic that underlies the problem partners-in-crime face when police catch and separate them.

If the partners refuse to talk, the police have limited evidence and can’t charge them with much. Maybe they only get two years in prison if they don’t talk. On the other hand, the police offer each criminal separately to lessen the two-year charge to one year if they rat out their partner. But if both partners rat eachother out, they’re both charged with even more crimes leading to longer sentences (say five years) for both.

In that case, the partners would be better off on the whole if they could agree to keep their mouths shut, but regardless of what each partner does the individual criminals can always improve the situation for themselves if they spill the beans. So both talk and both get five year sentences.

The Beginning of the End?

In the video linked above, four different media hosts predict it’s “the beginning of the end” for Trump leading up to the 2016 election. You can dig up any number of incidents where others do the same. After the midterms, for the first time, I began to feel the same way.

Then the media started talking. Everyone is now declaring Trump is as good as dead, politically. I can’t think of a better way to revive his political chances than for the media to declare he has no chance.

Our dilemma sets in again. The media can’t stop rejoicing over Trump’s demise, and, like something out of a paranormal movie, constantly chanting his name over the airways threatens to awaken his ghost.

I’m by no means claiming that Trump is doing this on purpose. This isn’t an article about how Trump uses “4D chess” to beat the media. He doesn’t have to understand what’s happening for it to happen. The anti-establishment nature of his base combined with the seemingly irresistible temptation the media faces to condemn him is all that’s necessary for the game to unfold exactly like in the example above.

So, if the media really wants Trump gone, the solution seems clear. If the media ignored Trump, they’d be more likely to get the exit they’ve been predicting for over six years. But they just can’t help themselves.

So will the midterms be the end for Trump? Maybe. But not if the media has anything to say about it.

Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.

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