Donald Trump and the Media Elites; Redefining Presidential Politics, Once Again

Whether Donald Trump speaks to your frustration with politics and Washington or, conversely, you worry he may not have the temperament to be the next president, one thing is clear—he’s turning presidential politics on its head. So, when is the last time a candidate upset conventional wisdom? Look no further than the campaign of our current president, Barack Obama.

A recurring theme in American politics overall, and particularly in presidential campaigns, is the emergence of a “new normal” each cycle. It wasn’t too long ago that candidates would gather on the steps of some columned, stately building and announce their intentions to run for office. More candidates today are announcing their candidacies via the Internet, on their campaign websites and on YouTube. This works, at least in the short term, in helping candidates control their message without interference of the press.

Just two elections ago, Barack Obama upset the natural political order by beating odds-on favorite Hillary Clinton. To a large degree he ran against her insider status, as a populist against the Washington establishment (where have we heard that recently?).

On the grassroots side, Obama used online donations to blow away the then- conventional wisdom that qualifying for federal matching funding was the way to go. Obama and his super bright digital team developed an email and cell phone database that, at the time, revolutionized fundraising and mobilized the campaign’s supporters.

When speculation was growing about who Obama would tap as his vice presidential running mate, voters had the opportunity to learn before anyone else (especially the media) by simply providing their cell phone number or email data to the Obama campaign. I remember the text message coming in— and the breathless media coverage of that text message—that Joe Biden had been tapped to be Veep. Wow, had things changed.

Obama’s team then used that enormous database to raise historic sums of campaign cash, three quarters of a billion dollars, much of it coming in small donations of $10 or less. The Obama model of fundraising and engagement is now the new normal, used by all of the presidential campaigns and has filtered down to campaigns on the state and local level as well.

So, how is Donald Trump redefining things this cycle? First, he is self-funding, at least in the primary season. He’s right when he says he’s not beholden to any of the typical corporate interests that are well represented by Super PACs.

Trump’s provocative language makes news—that’s not entirely new, but the way he is going about it is confounding the conventional wisdom. The cycle goes something like this, and it is entertaining to watch—he says something provocative, the press reacts in some form of surprise or horror; Trump gets talked about on the 24/7 news cycle; Trump calls in or appears on the Sunday or other news shows to double down on his comments, which rallies his followers, and probably nets a few more.

And “doubling down,” the antidote to political correctness, seems to be the new normal. Fellow candidates Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson are doubling down on dubious claims and it doesn’t seem to matter.

With so much disgust out there with the current political paralysis and the public’s low esteem for the media elites who seem to try to shape the narrative of a presidential campaign (the first Fox News debate comes to mind), Trump just reinforces he’s not part of the national dysfunction.

Despite the best attempts by the national media to frame Trump as a loose cannon, his core constituency in the Republican Party just digs in deeper when he says he is going to deport illegal immigrants or “bomb the hell out of ISIS.”

Then, there’s Twitter.

Donald Trump is using this no-cost platform to fire up his five million followers and, more important to him, make news that underscores his insurgency. He boasts about the huge crowds he is generating, says things like “Going to Ohio, home of one of the worst presidential candidates in history—Kasich” and “When you do your Christmas shopping remember how disloyal @Macy’s was to the subject of illegal immigration.”

It reminds me of the famous line in the 1976 movie Network, where the populace, urged on by an anchorman, are told to demonstrate their disdain for the status quo by opening up their windows and shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Take a look at the clip, close your eyes and you just might think you are listening to Donald Trump 2015.

At least in the movie, we know how it ended.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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