יום חמישי, 11 באוגוסט 2016

The Entertainment Candidate


Donald Trump is running a top-notch campaign — just not to be president.

Donald Trump is running a top-notch campaign to be a conservative media celebrity.

Unfortunately for him, and especially for the Republican Party, this isn’t the same thing as running a good, or even minimally competent, campaign for president.

From the beginning, Trump has been the candidate by and for the Entertainment Right, the talk-radio hosts, cable personalities and authors who recognize in Trump their own combative style and find it irresistible.

Trump’s campaign has hewed closely to the rules for 21st-century media provocateurs: Always be inflammatory and never apologize. Wear the media’s outrage as a badge of honor and attack your critics twice as hard. Repeat as necessary.

Trump didn’t learn these rules climbing the best-seller charts with polemical books or garnering A.M. radio ratings, but in the world of New York real estate. His dirtball mentor Roy Cohn, the late Joe McCarthy aide turned New York power lawyer, taught him to always stay on the attack and never back down. It was Trump’s discovery that, in the right conditions, the model was transferable to Republican primary politics.

Trump opened a window to his mind-set in advice he gave radio talk-show host Howie Carr, when Carr was embroiled in a minicontroversy: “Whatever you do, don’t apologize. You never hear me apologize, do you? That’s what killed Jimmy ‘the Greek’ way back. Remember? He was doing OK ’til he said he was sorry.”

This isn’t an accurate representation of Jimmy the Greek’s fall nearly 30 years ago (CBS fired the football analyst almost immediately after his offensive musings about black athletes). But it is telling that this is how Trump remembers it. If only poor Jimmy hadn’t been such a weak loser, he might have survived his racially insensitive remarks, and—who knows?—maybe been bigger than ever!

Trump’s refusal ever to apologize takes away one way to defuse controversies, and perhaps demonstrate some humanity and humility in the process. So his only options are to double down or try to evade what he said, forcing his defenders to repeat wholly implausible spin (and Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Co. usually dutifully comply).

Believers in the Trump “pivot” are constantly disappointed for a simple reason. Like a good entertainer, Trump always tries to keep his audiences engaged and amused. He doesn’t want to bore them or himself. His campaign is a kind of performance art in which entertainment value is more important than basic political considerations.

While journalists and political strategists are appalled by the distractions, Trump probably looks at things differently. Whenever one of his controversies generates a tsunami of media coverage, he may chafe at how “unfairly” he’s being treated, but part of him must be delighted as a child on Christmas morning at all the coverage. This is how he is wired.

After the past week, Trump must have trouble resisting the thought, “I’ve been the lead story in The New York Times five out of the last seven days—it can't be that bad, right?"

After his wife’s introduction to the country was spoiled at the Republican convention, Trump tweeted, "Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!” And that has, across four decades in the media capital of the world, always been one of Trump’s profoundest beliefs.

Republicans have been especially susceptible to the phenomenon of people running for president to enhance their media careers. Mike Huckabee had the most success at this, surprising on the upside in 2008 and landing his Fox News show afterward. In 2012, Newt Gingrich existed somewhere on the border between serious candidate and publicist for future book and movie projects. In his shocking victory in South Carolina, fueled by his defiance of the media despite his manifest weakness as a candidate by traditional measures, Gingrich came closest to foreshadowing the Trump phenomenon.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a media skills, a deft sense of political theater or boldness. But Trump is pushing the limits of the media-centric candidacy. His media enablers apparently don’t realize that just because someone rates, that doesn’t make him a good presidential candidate; just because someone has an intense following, doesn’t mean he’s appealing to a majority of people; just because someone is hated by the media, it doesn’t mean he’s a conservative.

Trump’s media fans will invariably give him advice to attack Hillary Clinton more (certainly sound counsel), but they will never tell him to tone it down.

The fact is that Trump isn’t necessarily losing on the issues; he’s losing on demeanor. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, Trump is roughly even with Hillary on handling the economy and terrorism, major issues, yet he trails badly on every presidential attribute.

So it’s not just a matter of Trump being more focused. e needs to be more dignified, more careful, more respectful and more knowledgable—in other words, a presidential candidate, not a media celebrity.

He is currently on a path to defeat, although if his standard is different, this may not matter so much to him. In terms of media attention, Trump’s campaign has been, and will continue to be, a runaway success. In his bizarre, rambling news conference after his convention speech, Trump bragged about how many Time magazine covers he has had in the past year. There have been reports that Trump is considering starting his own TV network after the election.

And why not? By November, one way or the other, win or lose, he will be more famous than ever.

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