With Barack Obama, the Democrats first made the leap to choosing a presidential nominee solely on the basis of his rhetoric — just as it was his speech at the Democratic National convention in 2004 that catapaulted him from obscurity to a U.S. senate seat and thus into contention for the presidency — and without regard to anything much he could point to as a substantive accomplishment in politics, government.or anything else. He could argue, if he chose, that Dreams from My Father, a best-selling book was an accomplishment (though being a "fiction writer" was meant to count against Senator Jim Webb of Virginia when he ran and won against Senator George Allen in 2006), but if so that also must be counted no more than a rhetorical achievement.
I wonder if it isn’t the case that the media now suppose this to be the electoral norm — and negatively as well as positively. Donald Trump can point to business successes (as well as best-selling authorship, though his books appear to have been written by somebody else) as relevant accomplishments, and doubtless he would prefer to divert attention from some of his less successful enterprises, but so far in the campaign both the good and the bad in Mr Trump’s career have taken a back seat to his rhetoric, too. In the eyes of the unremittingly hostile media, his chief sins — often his only sins, or the only ones thought worthy of mention — are rhetorical. He is thus the negative image, as it were, of President Obama, whose only virtues were rhetorical.
It is as if, so a dispassionate observer of the campaign to date might suppose, making a joke about the assassination of a political opponent (assuming, for the moment, that that was what Mr Trump was doing in mentioning the Second Amendment in connection with Hillary Clinton) was the worst thing Donald Trump ever did in his life. Well, it’s not good, to be sure, though Joe Biden did it a quarter century ago — in repeating a joke about the Secret Service’s order to shoot Dan Quayle if anything happened to George H.W. Bush — and nobody thought twice about it. But if Mr Trump is as bad as they keep telling us he is, there must be lots of worse stuff than that which the media are chosing to go lighter on or to ignore completely. Likewise, his mentioning the ethnicity of the judge in the suits against Trump University is almost all anyone in the media has talked about — much more, at any rate, than about the potential scandal of Trump U. itself.
From the media’s point of view, since we have already chosen a president on the strength of his hopey-changey rhetoric alone, it must seem logical that we are now being asked to unchoose one on the same basis — as if we have all now accepted that we must vote primarily if not solely on a candidate’s rhetorical presence in the media rather than anything else that was thought to be relevant before 2008. It also helps that the media have much more power to adjust that presence to suit their own ideas about the candidate than they do to fiddle with the record, good or bad. We might also notice that in the year Mr Obama won the nomination, his losing primary opponent was this year’s Democratic nominee. Then, she thought her "record" would trump (if you will pardon the expression) the president’s inexperience. She thought wrong. Maybe that’s why it also suits her to skip the record and concentrate on rhetoric this time around.
It’s possible that, in spite of all the stick he gets, that it will suit Mr Trump even more. And not only because there is lots in his past, too, that he would rather not talk about. If, as seems probable, he already knows that the man or woman elected in 2016 will be America’s second rhetorical president, which is to say someone elected on the basis of what he says rather than what he does or even what he promises to do, since people don’t believe such promises anyway, he could be forgiven for thinking that he occupies the more favorable rhetorical ground. That is the ground on which he so notoriously stands against "political correctness" — a rhetorical trope for that which is much hated and feared by Trump voters and potential Trump voters.
That’s why, at least until recently, so many of the media attacks on him have only tended to make him stronger. The media’s supposed outrage on the occasion of each new offense against the politically correct always looked phony to people, while at the same time it confirmed Mr Trump’s own championship of those long excluded from the media-favored elites, who look down on them for having out-of-date and unfashionable views on certain subjects that they have mostly learned to avoid bringing up in public. For the moment, it appears that the media’s power to intimidate with assertions of their own rhetorical virtues and the evils of those who dislike them has revived in inverse proportion to Mr Trump’s decline in the polls. But if I were they I would not bet on that power’s continuing unabated until election day.