Opinion

Donald Trump, the clickbait candidate

On the significance of Breitbart taking over the Trump campaign

Donald Trump is now on his third campaign manager in as many months. And the choice is a doozey: Stephen Bannon, until recently the chairman of Breitbart News LLC, which runs the fiercely combative alt-news site Breitbart. Trump has reportedly demoted his former campaign head, Paul Manafort, a long-term Republican consultant who had spent months trying to reassure a restive Republican caucus that Trump "gets it" and would begin running a serious campaign around the issues they cared about.

The stated rationale is that Trump is chafing under the Manafort program, and wants to be himself. Breitbart had been thriving as the volunteer press shop of the Trump campaign, singing his praises, running exclusive interviews with him, and running down his internal enemies in the Republican Party. But now, instead of letting itself be used by the Trump campaign, it will simply run the thing itself. Much more convenient that way. Trump is now the clickbait candidate: Check out this video of kids playing the knockout game. Pls fwd, then vote Trump/Pence.

This move should go over like a lead balloon with Paul Ryan and other Republicans who bit the bullet in the last few months and endorsed their party's nominee. Breitbart under Bannon's leadership openly disdained GOP orthodoxies and made no secret that it wished to destroy the near-enemy within the conservative camp before turning on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

It's also a fitting end-point for the Republican Party in this cycle. For years the party and the conservative intellectuals had what they thought was a workable relationship with the "entertainment wing," of the party. The entertainers needed ideas, which could be generated in new formulations endlessly by the conservative movement's scribblers. The scribblers needed mass media air time with right-leaning audiences in order to sell books. And the politicians wanted direct access to their voter base without the filter of The New York Times or The Washington Post mangling their message. The price was an occasional freak-out.

But the truth is, at some point, elected Republicans let themselves be henpecked by media personalities who have no real interest in ever implementing these ideas in the long term. In Washington, money flows to partisan media more freely when it's in opposition to the executive branch of government. Ratings, clicks, and donor interest all go down when you're out there defending the president. They go up when you're attacking a president. Breitbart has the best of both worlds in that it is in opposition to both the White House and to the Republican congressional leadership.

The best defense of populist right wing media was that it was merely lowbrow. It was a bullhorn that pitched conservative ideas in a crude way, to a mass audience that is only receptive to crude messages. But it isn't a surprise that in a democratic polity, the purveyors of crude media would confuse their numerical reach with significance. And also that they would begin to think that the ideas were starting to distract from the important thing, which was the volume of the bullhorn.

Thus Sean Hannity taunts an editor at The Wall Street Journal: "Instead of 23,000 Twitter fans hearing from you. I shared your ignorance with my 1.5 m and 15 m radio listeners!" While Hannity surely is more handsomely compensated than the victims of his taunts, the truth is that in the long run, subscribers to the Wall Street Journal are more important to the advancement of political goals than Hannity's paranoid geriatrics. People with ideas pitch publishers and write books and hope to get them reviewed in papers like the Wall Street Journal. People who want to sell erection pills, and hawk scam products like gold coins and survival seeds ask about the ad rates against right-wing populist media.

And it is a fitting end for the campaign to be handed over to this huckster. Donald Trump knows how to build a casino on junk bonds. He knows how to sell a real-estate seminar by saying you'll be a billionaire if you apply for a new credit line to get the add-on insights. A few decades ago, his aging Boomer audience could buy into aspiration and glitz. But now they are at the age when fear sells. So he hired salesman who knows that product line.

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