GOP voters are playing right into Trump's scheme: CBS chief Les Moonves explains how the Donald's cynical con job is working perfectly

The Republican presidential race is a media-driven circus — and that's good for business

Published March 1, 2016 7:00PM (EST)

Les Moonves, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Danny Moloshok/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)
Les Moonves, Donald Trump (Reuters/Danny Moloshok/Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Photo montage by Salon)

Last month Politico reported on Donald Trump's long-term plan to run for president. Contrary to what many believed, Trump's presidential bid was not whimsical. Turns out the Donald was preparing his strategy for at least two years, maybe more.

Trump was approached by Republican operatives in late 2013 about the possibility of running for governor of New York. He rejected the offer because he was already eying a run for president in 2016. “I'm going to walk away with it and win outright,” Trump said at the time, “I'm going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I'm going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.”

Trump's strategy was simple: draw on his media savvy and reality television experience to dominate coverage and control the narrative. There would be no need for retail politics or policy papers, Trump surmised, if he could simply own the news cycle. And he also believed, rightly, that the networks would spend all their time fumbling over his ascendancy, which would in turn help promote his candidacy.

The party insiders in attendance were skeptical of Trump's plans, but, as Politico reports, Trump knew better: “'You can't run for president on earned media,' one attendee recalled telling Trump. The billionaire looked up, and paused for a long moment. 'I think you're wrong,' Trump said. 'Are you going to do all those little events at the Pizza Ranches?' another person asked, referring to the Iowa fast food franches that are a staple of presidential campaign stops. 'Maybe a little,' Trump replied. 'But it's really about the power of the mass audience.'”

Not that he needed any more vindication, but a new report confirms that Trump was absolutely right. Les Moonves, the CEO and executive chairman of CBS, recently spoke at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco. In his remarks we hear precisely what Trump predicted: a total indifference to anything beyond ratings and profit.

The Republican presidential race is a media-driven circus, and circuses are good for business. “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,” Moonves said of the presidential campaign. Trump's presence makes the whole spectacle unpredictable and entertaining, not unlike a reality show. “Most of the ads are not about issues,” Moonves added, “They're sort of like the debates. Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now?...The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Moonves carried on a bit more about the surplus of advertising dollars “in the marketplace” due to Trump's continued presence in the race. But the point is obvious enough. Trump is winning, and he's made a mockery of the process along the way. As a TV man and professional charlatan, I expect Trump to behave like the swindler that he is, but the media's complicity is a huge part of this story. Everyone in political media – myself included – shares some of the blame here, but cable news and network television are disproportionately driving the process.

Television was at the center of Trump's strategy; he knows the landscape better than anyone. And he knew outrageousness would sell, and that ratings would incentivize non-stop coverage of his campaign. But this thing has spiralled out of control. Trump is very likely to win the Republican nomination, and who knows what's possible after that. Regardless, though, Trump will continue to do what he's done, and the cameras will surely follow. And yes, Mr. Moonves, that's “damn good for CBS” but terrible for the country.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Les Moonves Republican Party