In the hours before the second presidential debate, a report emerged suggesting President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was in talks about launching a Trump-branded media property.
There were widespread rumors before Trump was elected president that what he was really interested in was creating Trump TV. Now, as the voters are about to weigh in on whether Trump gets a second term, Trump TV is back in the news. But the truth is that if Trump does not win re-election, it's because he has conducted his re-election campaign, and much of his presidency, like it was already Trump TV.
While it is hard for his critics to believe, there are millions of Americans who not only support Trump because of his more or less conservative policies, but also actually like the qualities that set him apart from normal politicians: the tweeting, the belligerence, the political incorrectness, the adversarial relationship with a media they regard as partisan and biased to the point of being corrupt.
Consider this exchange with 60 Minutes' Leslie Stahl: "Is the name-calling turning people off?" she asked. Trump replied with a question of his own: "Where are we sitting right now?" She answered, "The Roosevelt Room." Trump shot back, "Of what?" "The White House," Stahl replied. "That's right," Trump concluded triumphantly.
To many voters, this is maddeningly unpresidential. Ronald Reagan may have similarly regarded the media as liberal and biased against him, but it is hard to imagine him speaking this way to an interviewer. Trump fans, however, love this. This kind of grandstanding is why they adore him.
Trump has identified a segment of the market that finds his style entertaining, engaging, even inspiring. He has worked to deliver what they want for four years. The trouble with this as a political exercise is that, unless the polling is more mistaken than it was four years ago, that audience adds up to only about 42 percent of the electorate. That may not be enough to win him re-election, but 42 percent of voters can certainly support a successful television show. They can make for a massive podcast. They can buy a lot of red MAGA baseball caps and other swag. They can fill assembly halls and other rally venues.
Trump has perfected a new brand as a populist pugilist. While this brand appeals to fewer people than his previous brand representing wealth and glamor, a real-life Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, those who are fans are much more deeply and passionately attached to it. Before, there were millions who wanted to watch Trump on The Apprentice. Now, there are millions who want to preserve his access to the nuclear codes.
This new brand is competing with real estate to become the family business. Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, as well as Eric Trump and his wife Lara, are following in dad's footsteps. Even Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, who are the least right-wing of the bunch and probably were better off when the president was just a rich guy who made lots of cameo appearances on television and films, have gone to the White House to support this new identity.
Unfortunately for Trump's political ambitions, exciting his audience has taken precedence over expanding his base. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that even Trump's erratic messaging on coronavirus, the biggest substantive issue hurting his re-election prospects, is to some extent driven by his desire to market to his adoring public. Most Americans like protective face masks and Dr. Anthony Fauci, but Trump knows that the bulk of the people who don't are in his corner.
It is certainly the case that Trump's base is more afraid of the riots that broke out in some major cities this year than they are of the pandemic. They are utterly convinced of Biden's corruption and dementia. They see Trump's defiance in the face of his own COVID-19 diagnosis as a sign of strength, not recklessness. Catering to these instincts may have led Trump to misjudge the electorate as a whole. But he is not misreading the room at a MAGA rally.
Who knows how seriously the Trump TV rumors should be taken. The fact that Trump got at least one term as president would give him credibility that no other talking head has, even if his TV entertainer inclinations get him canceled next month.
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