We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. In God's name, you people are the real thing! *WE* are the illusion! -- Howard Beale, "Network"
So far, this presidential cycle has been one for the books. The 1992 cycle featured a similar dynamic with a wealthy outsider running as a third party candidate and capturing the imagination of the press and the people alike. That race also featured generational change, petty sex scandals, an incumbent surprisingly in free-fall from a recent high of 90 percent approval and a right-wing nativist exciting a fairly large segment of the right wing over immigration. It was a roller coaster of a race in which the third party candidate, Ross Perot, of course, even dropped out after the Democratic convention, saying that the Democratic Party was "revitalized" and then joined up again a few months later.
And while the 2000 race was fairly predictably dull throughout, the aftermath was a doozy and the Sarah Palin addition to the 2008 GOP ticket didn't exactly usher in a staid political campaign of ideas. So, it's not fair to say that a weird presidential race is unprecedented, but this one is undoubtedly one of the weirdest, at least on the Republican side.
We have had entertainers run for office before, Ronald Reagan being the most obvious example. But he had spent decades as an expressly political figure and had been Governor of California before venturing into presidential politics as a candidate; he ran as a serious ideological political leader of a movement and a party. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an international movie star who ran in a bizarre off year California recall election but he had long been associated with Republican politics, was married to a scion of the Kennedy family and had been mentioned as a candidate for Governor many times in the past. Sarah Palin was always more entertainer than politician, and she rapidly made the transition to reality TV star after quitting her job as Governor after two years. But Donald Trump is the first current TV star to run for president and actually run his campaign as a reality TV show. And this is something we really haven't seen before.
When a recent Rolling Stone profile of Trump was released, the press went wild with a couple of outrageous quotes, one about Fiorina's looks and another about how attractive he finds his daughter. These are creepy, off-color comments at best and ended up accruing to Fiorina's benefit in the CNN debate, where she deftly turned it back on him. But the article had another series of quotes the media didn't mention which show some intriguing insights into Trump's strategy:
"I thought I'd have spent $10 million on ads, when so far I've spent zero. I'm on TV so much, it'd be stupid to advertise. Besides, the shows are more effective than ads."
He's right, isn't he? Ads can have an effect. But getting the chance to talk for hours at a time, uninterrupted, on all three networks is much more valuable.
He admits that you have to build a team on the ground and says he's got "huge, phenomenal" teams staffing up the first seven states. But he adds:
"I know that costs money, but I've got this, believe me. Remember: The two biggest costs in a presidential run are ads and transportation. Well, I own two planes and a Sikorsky chopper, so I'd say I'm pretty well covered there, wouldn't you?"
The article goes on to speculate just how much money Trump can really afford to spend and while it's surely enough, the question remains if he wants to spend it. His history suggests that one of the business lessons he's learned over the years is not to expose his own fortune to too much risk. So we'll see if he ever actually starts writing big checks. But it's his insight into the world of TV and how to manipulate it that's truly interesting.
I think there is probably a lot of handwringing going on behind the scenes at the news networks over their Trump coverage. Some serious journalists undoubtedly think it's insane to spend so much time covering his every bizarre utterance. But the people who look at the ratings obviously see something different. The first Republican debate drew 24 million viewers. The second drew 22 million.(This article from CNN Money explains that the drop off from the first is not because of less interest but because the debate was 3 hours long compared to 2.) Primary debates at this point in the 2011-2012 campaign cycle averaged 4 to 5 million viewers each. And nobody doubts that the reason people are tuning in to primary politics in such vast numbers so early in the cycle is because of one reason and one reason only: Donald Trump.
And as Michael Wolff wrote in this piece for the Hollywood Reporter, however he shakes out for the GOP, there's simply no doubt that Trump has brought big bucks to television this summer. But it's a mixed blessing for the network that created Republican TV:
[E]ven with such additional riches at Fox, the network suddenly finds itself in a deeply unsettled world. Trump is not one more product or reflection of the Fox News media philosophy and of its hold on the Republican party. Rather, Trump is the first Republican in the Fox age, who — in a weird sort of justice that liberal Fox haters might come to rue — threatens to break the network’s hold on the Republican party and the discipline it has imposed on it. At best, Trump negotiates with Fox on an equal footing. Arguably, he dominates it, demanding it dance to his tune.
And dance to his tune they have done. We've never seen Roger Ailes so pliable before in the face of a Republican candidate who defies his power. But he has a big problem he's never had before. Wolff points out that up until now Fox has defined the GOP brand and maintained a strong hold on its identity but Trump may be breaking that dominance:
Disorientingly, Trump is as much the candidate of CNN as he is of Fox, as much a friend of CNN chief Jeff Zucker as he is of Fox’s Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, as much a golden goose for Zucker as for Ailes. Indeed, Zucker’s star rises at CNN and within its parent Time Warner along with Trump’s. It is, of course, Zucker who, while running NBC, commissioned The Apprentice and its offshoots, transforming Trump from a local New York personality to national phenomenon. (Piers Morgan, the former CNN host who regularly had Trump as one of his highest-rated guests, was a winner of Celebrity Apprentice.)
So Trump is playing Fox and CNN off of each other and getting so much free airtime in the process he has no need to run any ads. But with the ratings bonanza he's creating, these news networks have no complaints about that. It is a very mutually beneficial arrangement.
As Wolff says:
Trump is less like a traditional Republican candidate than he is like the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. He’s the kind of news event that CNN has, in the Zucker era, become best at covering — the news event that can fill the vacuum of endless cable time, with no details too small, no rehash too repetitive. Such stories require no secret political and culture language. Rather, you just keep the camera trained on what’s in front of you. Trump provides his own narrative and talking points.
In this, Trump, beyond politics, offers new hope for the news business.
At this stage of the electoral process the Donald Trump campaign is literally a live reality TV show that is being shown on several different networks at once, all of whom are making a bundle from it. And in the process, he is breaking down the system that's been dominating TV news for the past 20 years.
That may actually be good news, depending on how this all ends. The political media, particularly on TV, has largely been a disaster for decades now and it's not showing any sign of improvement. In fact, they seem to retreating to an earlier age, before Fox became dominant and the establishment press was obsessed by manufactured GOP scandals. Trump is doing something different and they have not yet fully caught on to what it is.
None of this means that Trump's not a real candidate, far from it. It may just mean that he's a new political paradigm, a celebrity politician who brings new found riches and power to the media conglomerates by being a dangerous highwire act from which nobody can look away.
Wolff notes that this may be the first time in a couple of decades that we have a candidate who breaks down the media silos and reaches into the general viewing population. He hypothesizes that with politics polarized and the most engaged citizens dividing more neatly within the two parties and squeezing the political audience into a much smaller universe than ever before, perhaps this represents a sort of new "center" of millions of people who are drawn in by the drama. As he writes, everyone's riveted to the show, asking each other:
"Will he self-destruct? And how? And who will he take with him? Or, even more astounding, will he go the distance and blow up everybody in his way? That’s news. That’s a story. That’s television."
It is. And it's possible that going forward it's also politics, which is a much more scary proposition. For democracy to work, it requires at least a baseline level of rational understanding of what politics does. The Trump paradigm has no use for that.
This was foreseen by the brilliant screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky exactly 40 years ago in his classic film "Network." But even he didn't see the possibility that Howard Beale would actually be a very slick operator with tremendous fame and fortune who played the networks off of each other for ratings and profits. Maybe Trump really is the best deal-maker the world has ever known after all.