Last Tuesday night, Donald Trump “officially” launched his 2020 re-election campaign with a rally in a nearly full Orlando, Florida arena. Nothing new was said, because Trump has never really quit campaigning. By my count, before Orlando he had held at least 88 electioneering rallies — you know, the ones with the red hats and the yard signs and the group chants — since winning the 2016 election.
But something new did happen Tuesday night. Almost all the cable networks cut away long before the speech was over (but not before CNN broadcast the crowd yelling, “CNN SUCKS!”). Only TASS, I mean Fox News Channel, showed its viewers the entire 76-minute campaign commercial. For that is what it was, and I hope the mass media have finally realized that they helped this mess happen by bestowing on Trump a fortune in “earned media.”
“Earned media” is basically free publicity. You get it when the media cover you on their dime rather than accepting your payment for advertising. In the 2016 election, Trump benefited from earned media in two ways. According to data from tracking firm mediaQuant, he received $5.6 billion worth during the 2016 campaign — more than the combined spending of every other candidate who ran for president that year and an order of magnitude greater than Trump’s likely actual net worth. This also allowed him to dominate news coverage while expending relatively little on advertising, or “paid media,” much less than other candidates were forced to spend. In other words, the media were complicit in Trump’s election, and it’s starting to dawn on some of them that they facilitated his rise.
In hindsight, handing Trump a huge, free megaphone seems awful, but it isn’t hard to understand how it happened. Trump is a walking, talking outrage, combining ego and bombast with staggering ignorance and amorality. He was vigorously covered because nearly everything he said was pure-dee batshit. You might not choose to broadcast a circus geek biting the head off a live chicken, but if he’s running for president, it’s great tv. During the campaign Trump lied repeatedly and merrily. He used profanity. He condoned violence. He cruelly made fun of people’s physical appearances, including a disabled man. He denigrated a war hero and the family of a veteran killed in the line of duty. Impromptu words spilled out of his mouth nonsensically, as if he was reading jumbled refrigerator magnets. He used crude grade-school nicknames for his opponents. A Donald Trump appearance was riveting: nobody could predict what crazy bile would vomit from his mouth, because he kept defining propriety down. So this was somebody you couldn’t look away from, like a teetering tightrope walker or a crashing NASCAR driver. How far can he go before he implodes? Will people swallow this too?
When Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes, he was probably literally correct. (“Well, he must have had a perfectly good reason…”) His base is anchored by viewers of his popular tv show THE APPRENTICE, in which the four-time-bankrupted star (technically it is his corporations which have declared bankruptcy, not Trump himself — but let’s face it, no U.S. bank will lend him money any more, which is where Russia comes in) played the carefully scripted role of a shrewd businessman. And since it was a “reality show,” his fans bought it as real. But in point of fact, Trump has faked his way through life just as he’s faking his way through the presidency, and what we elected was not a canny dealmaker, just a game-show host. He wasn’t Moses, only Professor Harold Hill. The media created Trump the tv star before Trump the candidate.
I’ll never forget the early press conference when Trump first bypassed a question from CNN by saying, “you’re fake news,” and then moved on to somebody else. It was just one of what turned out to be many head-spinning moments to come. Did he just say a legit journalistic organization was “fake”? Since then, “fake” has been redefined to mean anything Trump doesn’t like. The maddening thing is that “fake news” really does exist: the Russians used it masterfully to promote Trump’s election. But in two short years he has coaxed normal, well-meaning, low-info people into distrusting truth itself. We’re in Orwell territory (“Ignorance Is Strength,” to be precise), except that Trump and his people thankfully tend to be too dense to rule on purpose; the innate fecklessness and absurdity of Trumpworld are obvious, sometimes even humorously so. Yet real damage is still being done, and sometimes one feels powerless against the relentless tide of shock, shame and nausea that the Trump presidency induces in rational citizens. But he is not invulnerable. One of his key weaknesses is there for all to see.
Remember when he was stuck in the White House last Christmas during the 35-day government shutdown? He whined on Twitter that he was “all alone,” because even this dimwit managed to comprehend that it would make horrible optics to play golf at Mar-A-Lago while thousands of dedicated public servants scrambled for a paycheck to replace the one they normally earned. A source close to the White House told New York magazine that Trump dislikes the entire production surrounding Christmas, “because it’s not about him!” This person added, “If it were about him, he’d love it.” This same juvenile lust for attention is why Trump plans to hijack Independence Day with a self-aggrandizing speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Otherwise, the Fourth of July wouldn’t be about him either.
This is an important fact to remember. We all know Trump craves the spotlight. But the flip side of that is, he can’t stand being ignored. So that’s what we have to start doing.
I’m not recommending that we quit reacting against his policies. Letting your voice be heard on substantive issues is one of the foundations of democracy, and if we want to save ours, we’d better be louder than ever. But we don’t have to make everything about Trump any more. So don’t put a Trump rally on the air at all; let Fox News serve red meat to those who actually believe he was exonerated by the Mueller report. Don’t repeat his answers when they are meaningless: take that airtime away from him. (“Are we going to war with Iran?” “You’ll find out.”) Find ways to talk about issues rather than personalities, science rather than science denial, fixing a broken immigration system rather than sneering and blowing it up, jobs for the middle class instead of tax cuts for the richest, affordable health care rather than ceremonial White House tables full of fast food.
If you want to wallow in Trump’s boorishness, well, that’s what Colbert and OUR CARTOON PRESIDENT are for. Also, simply follow his Twitter feed for a heapin’ helpin’ of presidential lunacy. But don’t give him the media attention he so desperately needs, without which he’s nothing because there’s no there there: his image is the only thing he’s got. Lose the cameras and he loses oxygen.
Unlike Trump, I am self-aware enough to appreciate that I’ve just ignored my own advice by writing this very piece. Yet more ink about Trump. But there are two things he hates: being mocked (cf., his overheated responses to Alec Baldwin and his startled reaction when the entire world laughed in his face at the UN) and being ignored. So I’m going to take my own medicine. I’m going to try my best to ease back on social media posts about the man, comment less frequently on personal Trumpian idiocy, and concentrate on what really matters. Not just beating him, but beating back the shallow cult of personality that got him to Washington in the first place.