As a candidate, the media was Donald Trump's greatest ally. And he knew it. He knew that his rallies would create televisable spectacle, and that by sharing his words — "the best words" — he could effectively brand himself. That was his plan going in. "I'm going to suck all the oxygen out of the room," he reportedly told a select group before his campaign. "I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me."
And it worked. Cable news personalities complained to me about their networks turning into Trump TV during the election, often pre-empting their own shows. The media amplified Trump's insults, and even ran his disses of Jeb Bush during some Republican debates like they were the plays of the day on SportsCenter.
But there's a problem for him now. When he said that the media will never take the lights off him, it was a glad prophecy for the election. It's an unhappy one for his presidency.
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Have you noticed how the initial drama of Trump's presidency has been replaced in the media with the internal drama of Trump's administration? The first weeks included wall-to-wall coverage of Trump's potential Cabinet nominees, his executive orders, his Supreme Court pick, and the failure of health-care reform. All of that has fallen into the background. The American presidency has been cancelled, and the replacement is government as soap opera. Stephen Bannon versus Jared Kushner and Ivanka. The generals versus the nationalist ideologues. Paul Ryan versus the Freedom Caucus. And Press Secretary Sean Spicer versus … himself.
The media has discovered that many inner-circle members of Trump's administration function like press-seeking missiles. It's almost a joke now when The Washington Post runs a report on the White House, and it claims to get its information from one day of seeking interviews "with 21 of Trump's aides, confidants, and allies."
In recent tweets and interviews, Donald Trump has gone back to referring to "crooked Hillary." There is something sad about that. He's grasping to get back to a time when he could use the media as a weapon against his opponents. But now the media is his opponent, and he's showing signs of wear and tear.
Americans do hate the media, and a certain section will always cheer when Trump declares the media the "enemy of the people." But the tone of the media's coverage of Trump's presidency constantly reinforces a low level of American panic, worry, and discomfort. Trump hasn't been able to bellow over that and reassure the American public. Trump was elected because his supporters believed he could make deals and get things done for Americans that had been left undone for decades. His words were fun during the campaign, but his populists want his deeds to speak for him now. He can't talk and brand his way out of this, at least not until the Democrats nominate another fantastically unlikable opponent.
But deeds are tough to come by after those first few weeks. Trump's approval ratings are low in precisely the way that makes him powerless to negotiate with intransigent members of his own party or with Democrats. And so we see him trying to generate a new set of spectacles where his authority is mostly unchallenged: foreign policy. Bomb Bashar al-Assad in Syria or drop the "mother of all bombs" on Islamists in Afghanistan. Let's see if Brian Williams will say he is "guided by the beauty of our weapons" again. Surely that pleased Trump.
The real problem for Trump is that he is needy when it comes to the press. He insults them in the unconscious way a 13-year-old boy insults a girl he likes. He instinctively thinks that after exciting her anger and confusion, he can make the cad's play and transform the resulting heat into something more romantic later. We hated each other, but deep down we love each other. But the truth is that his desperation is ultimately a turn-off. The media may play some games with Trump. But by the end of this, they'll leave him wallowing in his shame.
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