Death of journalism in America, opinionism comes instead – GOP strategist

Three weeks and the race for the White House is over. As American gets ready to decide who will be their next president, the fight between the two candidates is fiercer than ever. Polls say Hillary Clinton has secured a comfortable lead over Donald Trump and the media is already calling the election’s outcome. But with both Hillary and Trump knee-deep in scandals and their approval ratings at record lows – Is this vote turning into an unpopularity contest? And how accurate are the forecasts about its outcome? We ask a longtime Republican strategist and former senior adviser to the Trump campaign – Barry Bennett.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Long-time Republican political strategist Berry Bennett, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, in the wake of the third debate American media polls are once again handing victory to Hillary Clinton. Is Trump done for - or does he still stand a chance?

Barry Bennett: I think he still stands a chance. The race is very tight, it’s about 4-6 point race, with 3 weeks to go and lots of advertising and lots of things that could happen - so I think he is very much alive.

SS: Hillary’s enjoying a solid lead over Trump in the rating polls - an average of actually 7 points, not 4 to 6 - so what is Trump doing wrong?

BB: I think that he is proven to be somewhat an undisciplined candidate, he won’t stick to the message and has wasted a lot of time by talking about things that he probably shouldn’t have been talking about. But, she’s still at 45, 46, 47% - so this is nowhere near over.

SS: During all three debates, Clinton used the same tactics against Trump - pushing his weaker points, making him angry and forcing him to appear rash and defensive and she succeeded. Why is Mr. Trump letting his temper harm his campaign?

BB: I think the American voters are just as angry, though, so I don’t think the Americans see that as necessarily rash or anger. I can understand how, you know, outsiders might, but there 50 mn Americans at least who are very angry with their government, who are very disappointed in their government and they want to see some passion and I think he demonstrated that last night.

SS: But would you do something differently if you were him, if you were standing up on that stage, debating Hillary? Would you behave differently?

BB: I don’t know if this is necessarily a behaviour issue. I thought last night he did better than he did previous two, for sure, but I would talk more about the problems that real Americans are feeling - I mean, real Americans haven’t had an increase in their real income in a really long time, right. Heroin is killing lots and lots of Americans across the country every day. We have schools that don’t teach, factories that are vacated, we’ve got lots of problems and I think you should talk about those problems every day, all day.

SS: So, that’s my point exactly - he’s actually letting his temper get in a way of real issues. I mean, you can get angry, but you can get angry discussing real issues - why is he not doing that?

BB: You’re right, you’ve got to turn that anger into passion about real issue and forget about all these sideshow and the contrived controversies and all this stuff. Because if you’re unemployed and you’ve been unemployed for a long time, that’s all you want to hear about, that’s all you’re angry about, and that’s what he should be talking about, not of this side-show stuff. The clock is ticking, we’re running out of time, so every day, every hour that he wastes doing something other than talking about those real issues is gone.

SS: He even had a few disagreements with his own running mate Mike Pence - why is that happening, is debating Clinton not enough for him?

BB: God gave us each individual brains and if we agreed on everything all at the same time, one of us is not needed - so they always are going to have differences, he’s going to be the President and Mike is going to be Vice President, but, you know, that’s fine to have differences.

SS: Yeah, it’s fine to have differences when you’re buddies and it’s fine to have differences if you’re from different camps, but shouldn’t you keep a united front if you’re running for President and vice-President together?

BB: I think they do have a united front, I think that the differences are small.

SS: Clinton’s campaign is far better organised from what we can see, it has more offices, she’s got more people working for her, better funding and the backing of a former and current President, of high-ranking officials - and we have Trump on the other side and his campaign’s witnessing shake-ups, staff leaving - including yourself, and Trump doesn’t have the support of his own party - is that what’s going to cost Trump the election in the end or something else?

BB: I’m not sure that anything is going to cost him election in  the end, we don’t know yet, it’s 3 weeks away, but they’re running very different campaigns. Hillary’s running a very traditional, they hire lots of people, they send them around the country, what they’re doing I don’t really know. If you look at voter registration at the key states, Republican party registration is up and Democratic registration is down. But this is really an election, a first one we have in America, where social media is so powerful. If you look at the last week of data, which was the last week of September, Donald Trump has 30 million interactions on Facebook. Hillary Clinton had about eight. Vastly different. There are a lot more people in America talking about Donald Trump every day than about Hillary Clinton. It’s hard for her to hire 22 million people to start talking to her, but she’s doing it very traditionally and he’s doing it very differently. We’ll see if that really is the right thing to do in the end, but undoubtedly, American politicians have to start paying attention to social media more than they ever have.

SS: Undoubtedly, he’s huge in the social media and in the traditional media, but not all the respondents and people who actually react to him are favorable to him - most of the people who actually react are either making fun of him or are angry at him. Is all PR good PR?

BB: That’s not true. In the sentiment score of those interactions he was actually more favorable than she was. Her 8 million had a higher negative propensity than his 29 million. But what we’re watching here in the U.S. for the very first time is… in our top 25 newspapers, the big, big newspapers, they have about 13,5 million subscribers. Donald Trump posted his apology on the web the other day at midnight, and it got 29 million views! So he’s reaching people in ways that we’ve never imagined before.

SS: And you think that he’s doing that better than Hillary?

BB: Oh yeah, for sure.

SS: So, like you’ve said, he dominated the campaign coverage for over a year in the runup to the nominations, but he’s now saying the national media is not being fair to him - does he have a point there?

BB: I think there are certain American cable news channels who are certainly biased, and it’s no longer debatable - I mean, we’re seeing it in the Wikileaks stuff, we’re seeing their coverage, there’s certain bias among some of the American journalists. Is it horribly unfair to him? I don’t know, I think a lot of this is baked in the electorate. There isn’t a lot of movement going on in the electorate, so I don’t know if that makes much of a difference, but there are a lot of people in America who call themselves journalists, who practice bias.

SS: Can you blame them for having their very subjective point of view about it? Because anything Trump says is a news magnet, and sometimes it’s very outrageous, very provocative. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but you just can’t look away.

BB: We are all biased by our personal experiences, but you can’t call yourself a neutral journalist and then practice opinionism, and that’s what we’re seeing in the U.S. We are seeing the death of journalism and the birth of opinionism. I mean, in our big newspapers, some of our great newspaper institutions you see opinions in the first 3 paragraphs of stories. That never happened before. It’s not good for news.

SS: The press is onto Donald Trump, dropping a bomb about maybe not accepting the results of the election. I want us to hear a grab:

Donald Trump:“What I am saying is I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.”

SS: The press is saying how he’s threatening the pillar of American democracy and so on. But why is everyone so shocked about that? Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore back in 2000 - he did it and that didn’t scare anyone…

BB: He took the results to court, the Supreme Court had it decided month later. This is a contrived controversy. He didn't say he wouldn’t, he said let’s wait and see. I don’t know, unless they already know what the results are, how we could possibly say? I think this is contrived.

SS: What happens if Trump actually doesn’t accept the vote results? Will he be forcing a recount or get his supporters out on the streets, like the media insinuates?

BB: In all of these cases, it really doesn’t matter what he does, it matters what his supporters do. American voters, pretty much, all believe in the system and if they come up short, then they will accept Hillary as the winner. Now, the problem is, whoever wins, Hillary or Trump, they’re going to get about 45-46% of the vote. There will be a lot more, millions of people who voted against them than for them. That means that the new President will start with a very low approval rating, no mandate, and if the approval ratings - Trump’s and Hillary’s personal approval ratings stay the same,  about 60% of the country will hate them. So it will be a very dynamic time in Washington, but the ugliness isn’t going away the morning afterwards. America is very divided and I expect that it will stay divided through the first term of whoever wins.

SS: So, like we’ve said, this is a very unusual election and Trump is a very unusual candidate, and any candidate would have been destroyed after all the scandal that’s been thrown at him - but not Trump. He’s still standing, he's still going strong, he still enjoys support of at least half of the country, like you’ve said - why?

BB: It’s because they’re not supporting him personally. What they’re doing is supporting this movement that we need to change drastically our governmental institutions in Washington, right. They’re not voting for Donald Trump’s personality, often times they’re voting in spite of it - but there’s this movement. He didn’t build the movement, the movement chose him, and they’re very angry at Washington’s wasteful spending, tremendous debt, ineffective government programs - those kinds of things, and they want change in Washington. If Donald Trump loses, then the Republican in Washington will have to pick up that mantle of change. if they don’t, we can see the Republican party split in two.

SS: Clinton is leading in the polls by, but Trump’s supporters are not exactly the opinion pollsters sampling group - and  I heard this theory about the phenomenon of the so-called ‘shy’ Trump supporter - can the support for Trump actually be higher than we’re led to believe?

BB: Yeah, we see this in American politics, when it’s not cool or you’re not entirely happy with your choices, you refuse to answer questions about who it is you’re voting for - so, it’s not going to be surprising to many political professionals if his supporters are understated by two or four points.

SS: Can there be shy supporters of Hillary as well, from traditionally Republican states?

BB: I don’t think so - Hillary is… She’s been on the stage for 30 years, she has very-very negative… people who have a very negative opinion about her are not voting for her, and there’s no personality problems that people might be embarrassed with. So I don’t think that will happen to her.

SS: Is it possible to predict this election? Analysts and opinion polls can paint one picture, but we’ve seen voting surprises this year already - who would have thought that Brexit would happen? Can this election throw up a surprise in the U.S.?

BB:Polling is certainly facing challenging times, right. In America the hardline phone is a dying thing, so calling cell phones is tricky, you get a different result. Online polling is very tricky to get a way to balance whom you’re actually talking to. So all these things are… It’s a confluence of problems all at once. We saw on Sunday, NBC put out a poll that Trump was 12 points down. Five minutes later, ABC put out a poll that Trump was 4 points down. On Monday, Rasmussen put out a poll that Trump was up one - they’re all over the boards.

SS:Go figure.

BB:Yeah.

SS: Alright. So, Vladimir Putin and Russia have come up a lot during this presidential campaign, and featured heavily in the latest presidential debate. Hillary called Trump ‘a puppet to Vladimir Putin’. Trump says he’s not Putin’s friend but wants to ‘get along’ with Russia - why doesn’t Hillary want good relations with Russia, with a powerful country like that?

BB: I think that she doesn't want people to talk about her failed foreign policy attempts - the Russian Reset which she miserably failed at. The foreign policy record of the current administration is pretty abysmal from an American point of view. Trump sees that and talks about how having a better friendship with Russia is a good thing for not just us, but for the world. But she can’t bring herself to say that for a certain reason. It’s unfortunate, because it’s true - the world is getting smaller every day and Russia shouldn’t be our enemy, they could be our friend, and we need to figure that out and stop throwing these fear diatribes at Russia and vice-versa. It’s a small world, we need to learn how to be friends.

SS: Hillary’s camp put out a video that’s supposedly exposing Trump’s ties to the Kremlin - but as proof, she’s using him just meeting some Russians at some random point in time, and the video even gets those Russians wrong in the picture - showing a picture of a waning 80s pop singer celebrity - which I personally know... instead of a supposed powerful oligarch - how can these allegations be taken seriously?

BB: Exactly. It’s lunacy, that’s what it is. I worked for President George W. Bush and I did the G8 Summit here in America and worked with Russian counterparts every day for year and a half. Oh my gosh, I hope there’s no video that shows that I’m a lapdog for Putin! That’s crazy. I don’t know where she’s going with this, it doesn’t help her case and it certainly doesn’t help the world.

SS: Why does expressing an opinion on Russia that deviates from the mainstream hawkish line, automatically make you a stooge? - is it because Russia can’t possibly be right about anything in the eyes of an average American?

BB: It goes to our own ways of media. We are very controlled about what we learned about Russia and what we were taught about Russia. But as the world gets more and more wired, social media and everything else, and people are forming independent opinions of what’s going on. There are two sides to every story - it doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everything, but at least, the world is becoming a smaller place and we need to be more aware as individuals.

SS: If Hillary is elected to the White House, how will she keep up dialogue with Moscow after all that she’s said about Russia? She’s called Putin a bully, said he doesn’t have a heart…  It all sounds like she’s planning on cutting ties with Moscow - do Americans want that?

BB: I don’t think Americans want that at all and I don’t know that she will necessarily do that, but she’s backing herself into a corner. That first bilateral meeting is going to be very cold, which is a shame, because the two countries have come together on numerous points in history and actually done great good for the world. It’s a shame that she’s intent on taking such a hard line for no good reason than trying to shield herself from some embarrassment

SS: Americans hate interventions, they don’t want any wars abroad after Iraq, Afghanistan - a Pew research poll says  57% of Americans say U.S. should take care of its own problems first. Trump is saying he’d put an end to nation-building, while Hillary’s record on that matter is questionable - her tenure as Secretary of State saw the toppling of a foreign leader, she’s backed every recent intervention, does the public not care about this as much for it to make a difference?

BB:I think the public cares deeply about this. I think that there’s a huge difference in public opinion between the Pentagon and the State Department. What the Pentagon did was very effective and very quick and quite successful. Then the State Department comes in and manages to screw everything up. So, I think there’s a fatigue in the U.S. about interventions, but America always rises when it feels like it needs to, very quickly we can come together over these issues, but I think that we have to be far more careful, and for God’s sake, we need a plan when we go in and try to rebuild a country and so far we haven’t proved to be very good at that.

SS: The Clinton campaign emails released by Wikileaks - even if it was Putin himself who did it, or a hacker in his basement - that doesn’t change the facts that are presented in the leaks. Hillary placing the blame for everything on Putin -  is she just evading responsibility for what’s in the hacked docs? The late night comedians are already having a blast, mocking it as a cheating husband excuse… How is she getting away with that?

BB: I don’t think she is. She is trying desperately to just blame the Russians for everything, but the content of those emails is shocking. She’s already called people deplorable, irredeemable, now she’s after catholics. What’s happening behind the scenes in the Clinton campaign is scary. And I’m glad that it’s getting exposed.

SS: Exactly. Why aren’t the Podesta emails, that have some damning stuff in them, hurting Clinton’s support?

BB: I think they are. I think you’re going to see that now. In polling, it takes about 6-10 days, lagging for those things to start popping up in polls. We’ll see the race tightening and it’s primarily because of all this inside stuff that we’re seeing that is, frankly, very ugly, about what’s going on inside the Clinton campaign. They were hiring people to go to Trump rallies and cause fights, and blaming Trump people for being violent - I mean, it’s a total sham. It’s embarrassing.

SS: Clinton also refused to release the transcripts of her Wall street speeches earlier - and now we know why, since they show just how cozy she is with big business - after all the promises to ‘take on Wall Street’ is there any hope that Hillary can deliver on that?

BB: No, I don’t think so. The Congress is not going to change hands after this election, I don’t believe it.

SS:The latest Podesta email leaks reveal how the DNC conspired to manipulate fellow Democrat Bernie Sanders to support Hillary - suggestions included ‘making love to Bernie’ or ‘kneecapping him, to take him down from his morally superior perch’. Bernie Sanders did endorse Clinton - but will his supporters do so now?

BB: Some of them have, a lot of them haven’t. A lot of them just simply won’t vote. Many of them have fallen into the category of people who are just very-very unhappy with Washington and they may actually pull for Trump, but will never admit to it.

SS: So, the third party candidates, namely Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, they are pulling a combined 10 points approximately - can that make a decisive difference in the race of the big players, like it happened with Ralph Nader for instance?

BB: It can. What we’re seeing is that the race is so evenly divided between the remaining 90%, it’s so evenly divided between Clinton and Trump, and what it’s going to mean is that the winner is going to get 45-46% of the vote, which is going to mean a very tough sledding for whoever gets elected President for this first term.

SS: A lot of people are saying that the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who becomes President - Hillary or Trump, because whoever becomes President, he’ll end up doing what the establishment wants him to do. What do you think, can a person really change the way things are run in the White House?

BB: Donald Trump hasn’t done anything the establishment was asking him to do so far. I don’t think that will change after January 20th…

SS: But that’s the whole counter-argument. They’re saying, as outrageous as Trump seems right now, he’s just going to be like a velvet rose once he’s in the White House, because he’ll have no other choice, because anyone who gets the Presidential seat is inevitably hostage to the whole establishment. And they’re also naming Obama - he came with great ideas, and he wanted to change the world and at the end of the day, he hasn’t done that much because his hands were tied.

BB: I disagree, because Obama was very successful at Stimulus one, Stimulus two, Cash for Clunkers, Obamacare, all these great liberal programs that he wanted. He got them all, Congress gave him everything he wanted. They just didn’t work, not at all. I mean, they were all failures. That’s his problem. If Trump is elected, you’ll immediately see the replacement of Obamacare, you’ll immediately see a path to balance budget, you’ll immediately see a buildup in the military, you’ll see much more America-focused foreign policy and economic policy. The American voters, the ones who love Trump, what they really love most is the fact the he knows how to drive a bulldozer, nothing else. They want to wreck Washington, and I think that’s what he wants to do as well.

SS: Allright, Barry. We’ll be watching closely, see what happens. Thanks a lot for this interview, we’ve been talking to Barry Bennett, long-time Republican political strategist, discussing the final phase of this year’s presidential contest. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.