Donald Trump has been receiving some very bad headlines. Last week his poll numbers took their first serious hit after he fought with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a Muslim Army captain who heroically sacrificed himself in Iraq. He topped himself on August 9 by committing an act of stochastic terrorism, using his pulpit to plant an idea in supporters’ minds that assassinating Hillary Clinton might be a good idea.
What lasting effect any of this will have on him remains to be seen. His supporters are cult-like and he has proven almost impervious to bad publicity. Yet for a man who relentlessly seeks the spotlight and who recently said, “All press is good press,” Trump has long had a tumultuous relationship with the media.
One of the few consistent planks of Trump’s platform is his opposition to the first amendment. He wants to loosen libel laws to let him go after critics and has sued The Onion and Bill Maher for their satire. At rallies he regularly points to the press pit and insults the reporters and photographers. He has revoked press credentials for several national outlets, including the “phony and dishonest” Washington Post.
Trump has reason to be testy – most mainstream coverage of him is negative. But he brings it on himself. His unhinged narcissism and lack of filter led him to dog-whistle for violence against his opponent and pick a fight with the parents of a slain veteran. He lacks the intellectual capacity to answer even basic questions and when he does outline a concrete position, it’s often bigoted, authoritarian and even terroristic. Frankly, it’s nearly impossible to find anything positive to say about the man.
Yet Trump as we know him would not exist without the media. He’s been a big tabloid draw for decades. When attention dried up, a desperate Donald would plant tips about himself to the media under the assumed identity of his own publicist. He cultivated celebrity friendships wherever he could, schmoozing with and entertaining stars. And of course, The Apprentice aired 14 seasons and would likely have gone longer had Trump not won the GOP nomination.
His hat was first thrown seriously into the political arena when he carried the torch for the racist birther conspiracy, which held that the nation’s first black president was a non-native citizen born in Kenya. Around this time Trump became a regular caller on morning news shows, particularly FOX & Friends. While he was widely dismissed as a carnival barker and a kook, by taking his calls so dutifully the media gave Trump the steady exposure he needed to build a political following.
According to high-level insiders his entire 2016 campaign was initially based on seeking attention, and he’s gotten plenty of it. During the primaries Trump garnered some $3 billion in free media coverage. His campaign has barely spent anything on advertising. They haven’t had to, because Trump is constantly in the news anyway. The media made Donald Trump and, after struggling to cover him responsibly, are now allowing him space on their front pages and nightly news shows to unmake himself.
Because of the historic unpopularity of both candidates, it’s widely predicted that whoever gets more attention will lose the election. While Clinton fights for a low profile, Trump is daily giving the media something new and trivial to discuss, usually some sexist, racist or violent remark. The same media shallowness that allowed a boob like Trump to become a prominent public figure in the first place is now undermining his campaign as his every idiotic word is repeated ad nauseam.
Trump has also benefited from this. His flagrant racism goes largely unchallenged. He has advocated for torture, violating the Geneva Conventions, and killing civilians, all without much follow-up. The insane, species-threatening stance he’s taken on climate change and nuclear weapons gets very little coverage. As bad as the coverage of him is, it would be even worse if the media seriously discussed his policies rather than focusing on his petulant personality.
It’s Trump’s own insistence that he stay on the front page that will be his most likely undoing. He expects media coverage to match his own internal propaganda about what a historically magnificent person he is, but the reality of his revolting character and nightmarish fascism can be smelled a mile away. For an increasing number of Americans, including longtime Republicans, it can no longer be ignored or dismissed as mere kookiness. And Trump has only himself to blame for the constant exposure.