A lot of ordinary Trump voters are directly in Paul Ryan’s crosshairs. It’s tempting to write them off as idiots. But before we blame them, we should start with the many politicians who lied to them, and a media that utterly failed to inform them:
This should start at the top. Trump’s approach to health care policy during the campaign was one he has applied to all fields: that is, to lie constantly. Trump explicitly promised that there would be “no cuts” to Medicaid, which TrumpCare would in fact cut big league. He also promised “insurance for everybody” and repeatedly asserted that this insurance would be better than Obamacare. Needless to say, under TrumpCare many fewer people would have insurance and the quality of insurance people could afford would more likely be worse than better.
Perhaps you could argue that anyone who trusts a liar as prolific as Trump gets the government they deserve. But it wasn’t just Trump. As Eric Levitz at New York magazine demonstrates, Republicans in general lied systematically about their plans for health care. As recently as January, Republican ads were cynically attacking Obamacare from the left, arguing (correctly!) that health care costs were too high and that plans were too expensive and not generous enough. Republicans were very careful not to be explicit about their plans to take away the health insurance of tens of millions of people to pay for tax cuts for the extremely affluent. It’s unfair to put more blame on the marks than on the deceitful con artists who ultimately offered them an egregious bait-and-switch.
If ordinary voters can’t be expected to have the background knowledge to see through the Republican health care fraud, surely political journalists can. And yet the media failed completely to adequately convey the policy stakes of the 2016 election. An ordinary voter could have no idea what to reasonably expect from Trump and a Republican Congress even if they made an honest effort to follow news about the election.
Mainstream media outlets mostly abandoned policy coverage during the 2016 elections. Network newscasts devoted exactly zero minutes of coverage to health care policy between January and late October of 2016. Only one question about health care was asked during the four presidential debates. A comprehensive study by the Shorenstein Center found that only 10 percent of media coverage of the campaign focused on policy. And much of that small fraction was devoted to Trump’s unorthodox stances on a few issues like trade, which could well have reinforced Trump’s false promises on health care, framing him as the kind of Republican who wouldn’t gut grandpa’s Medicare.
It’s not as if the Republican plans were a secret. They had passed numerous bills to repeal Obamacare when Obama was in office, and the effects of such repeals had been estimated.
And it’s even worse than that. While the media was mostly ignoring literally life-or-death issues like health care and climate change, it was providing voters with wall-to-wall coverage of one “issue”: Hillary Clinton’s email server. The bizarre saturation coverage of this trivial pseudo-scandal helped convince much of the public that Clinton was just as dishonest and corrupt as her opponent—a serial liar who refused to release his tax returns and has used the presidency to enrich himself on an entirely unprecedented scale. It also provided the ammunition FBI Director James Comey used to deliver the kill shot to Clinton’s campaign: the October letter to Congress announcing new alleged revelations about the server, which contributed to a significant late surge for Trump in battleground states.
And it’s also worth remembering that many more voters would be familiar with Donald Trump, reality star who epitomizes the successful businessman, than the real Donald Trump who swindles or tries to swindle pretty much everyone he tries to do business with. These voters were lied to, and the media not only failed to hold Republicans accountable, when they failed to find any misconduct on the part of Hillary Clinton that could create a Both Sides Do It narrative they just invented some.