As of this precise second–and this might well change by the time I finish this sentence–there are 21 people running for president. Twenty have officially announced, and one (Governor John Kasich) is expected to join the race soon. Some of them will be weeded out by the first debate, some will vanish by Iowa, all but two (probably) will be gone by next summer and eventually one of them will actually become the 45th president of the United States. Some of those 21 people are more likely to reach that level than others, but no one has cast a single vote, and no one will for another 199 days. We’re all just guessing.
These things tend to go crazy. At this point four years ago, Michele Bachmann was rising in the polls and would end up winning the Iowa straw poll, knocking out two candidates right then and there. Over the next few months, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich would all surge and fall in the polls; Cain, a man who was running for public office for the first time, even reached the cover of Newsweek magazine. Cain never ever had a realistic shot of becoming president, and it seems quite possible, in retrospect, looking at that smoking ad, that he was maybe insane.
But you couldn’t wish away Herman Cain just because he made terrifying campaign ads. You can’t ignore polls just because you want to.
Which brings us, as everything tends to do these days, to Donald Trump. This morning, the Huffington Post announced that it will no longer cover the “campaign”—those air quotes are theirs—of Trump, saying “Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you'll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.” Now it’s worth noting that as I type this, the Huffington Post politics page has this story placed directly below one titled “Donald Trump's 1990 Nazi Nightstand,” one of four Trump stories on the page. But those could just be grandfathered in. Let’s take them at their word. Let’s assume they’re done.
I am sure everyone at Huffington Post Politics felt better about themselves this morning when they posted that statement. People who cover politics take a lot of pride in covering something of consequence. Reporting can be a demoralizing job where you spend every day hounding people who don’t want to talk to you, getting called horrible things by strangers, making less money that your college friends who gave up and went to law school, and watching your current colleagues lose their jobs all around you at an increasingly alarming rate. The upside is the self-importance that comes with covering Politics, capital P. You can tell yourself you are writing the first draft of history. You’re not recapping reality television or captioning celebrity sex tapes. You have prestige.
For some journalists, Donald Trump seems to trample this prestige. People don’t go into covering politics to write about people like Trump; he’s what they got into this to avoid. And I get it. It can be frustrating to do your best to explain to your readers the complexities of the Iran deal and have them care more about what Donald Trump’s favorite Vegas stage show is. (Not Penn & Teller, in case you were wondering.) Donald Trump can make you feel worse about your job.
But, you know, the job’s a job. Just because you believe Donald Trump shouldn't be a legitimate candidate for president doesn’t mean he actually isn’t. Wringing your hands about the fact that Trump is starting to actually lead in national polls may make you feel better about yourself, but for a political journalist, it's a questionable impulse. Imagine a sports reporter not including Patriots’ scores because they don’t like Bill Belichick, or an entertainment reporter refusing to mention Transformers box office results because Michael Bay is destroying America. You can have these thoughts—I might even agree with you—but that doesn’t mean you get to cover your eyes and plug your ears and wish away facts, however distasteful.
Well, Trump isn’t going to win, this is all a stunt, you say. Well, yeah, probably not: I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be elected president in November 2016 either. (I actually just shuddered typing that.) But what, exactly, makes Trump a less viable candidate than George Pataki, or Bobby Jindal? Sure, they’ve won elected office and he hasn’t … but, in the Fox poll, they have zero percent of voters picking them as a first choice. Surely being in first place in a poll gives one some legitimacy? And even if Trump doesn’t win, it doesn’t mean he’s not going to matter. He has clearly galvanized a certain percentage of the Republican electorate, and other candidates are already strategizing as to how to respond to Trump, and his voters. Those votes will count, even if other candidates are able to pry them away from Trump; the section of the electorate that Trump has worked up is a substantial, real one. They exist. Politicians will go after them. That all looks a heckuva lot like politics to me. What is HuffPo going to do when Trump is on stage at the debate? “Bush responded to [NAME REDACTED] accusation that he was a ‘loser’ with a frown.”
This campaign cycle, Trump is the elephant in the room. He's ridiculous, sure. The only thing sillier is pretending he's not there.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Michele Bachmann's first name.