The day the world stopped paying attention to Donald Trump
Donald Trump isn't just losing the presidency. He is losing his power.
The Oval Office comes with a lot of authority, of course, but President Trump's power has always been rooted in his talent for attracting and keeping attention. That's why, even during his ostensible career as a developer and casino operator, he kept finding ways to end up on TV and in movies — and why, when social media emerged, Trump attracted even bigger audiences by pumping out his thoughts a few hundred characters at a time. When he ran for president in 2016, cable networks would show his rallies for hours, giving him billions of dollars worth of free media.
Attention made Trump a player in the Republican Party. Attention gave him the presidency. Attention — the fear of being on the receiving end of a mean tweet — kept a lot of GOP elected officials in line.
In the days since the presidential campaign concluded on Tuesday, there have been signs that Trump is losing his ability to hold the attention of the media, his party, and the public.
The most obvious sign has come from Twitter. As the president has ramped up his false charges of election fraud, the service has increasingly hidden his remarks behind disclaimers that Trump's words "might be misleading." That hasn't stopped users from clicking through to see what Trump is writing, but it did place one small obstacle in their way — one that might become even more difficult to hurdle if he loses the election outright. Bloomberg reported Thursday that Twitter would treat Trump like any other private citizen after he leaves office, vulnerable to "temporary account freezes, suspensions, or even a permanent ban" for abusive behavior.
Trump's other great love — television — is also starting to betray him. On Thursday, he went before the cameras to falsely charge that the election is being stolen from him. It was an odd performance, listless and full of lies. And slowly but surely, the networks cut away from him; MSNBC, NPR, CBS, ABC, and NBC all withdrew from live coverage of the president's speech.
"We have to interrupt here, because the president made a number of false statements, including the notion that there has been fraudulent voting," NBC's Lester Holt told viewers. "There has been no evidence of that."
MSNBC cut away from Trump in about 30 seconds pic.twitter.com/toBJvejpUO
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) November 5, 2020
It probably is no coincidence that, as a loss loomed and the cameras started to shift away from Trump, his nominal Republican allies suddenly found themselves willing to criticize him. On CNN, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called Trump's remarks "dangerous." Elected officials like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), and others followed suit. Some simply refused to vocally support the president.
The Trumps noticed, and suggested they were taking names. "For GOPers to not stand up now shows your true colors," Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter. "Will make the 2024 primary process a lot easier."
That threat — that the Trumps would undermine any future presidential candidate who didn't support them in their hour of need — is only powerful if Trump himself can still draw eyeballs. Without Twitter, without the ability to get live television coverage wherever he goes, that power will be diminished. And without that power, what exactly does Trump have going for him to ensure the loyalty of ambitious Republicans?
Oh, sure, maybe Trump will take the advice of Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and leave Twitter to join Parler, an alternative site with a largely conservative constituency. Or maybe he will do what many expected him to do after the 2016 election and create his own news network. Trump probably won't suddenly lose his ability to draw attention to himself. There are a few conservative politicians who will still seek his endorsement, no matter what.
But it won't be the same. For five years now, Donald Trump has sucked all the air out of the room, absorbing our attention and occupying our thoughts. It has been exhausting for the American public, but it has been empowering for him. There is nowhere to go from here but down. And you have to wonder what Trump considers a bigger blow — losing the presidency, or losing his audience?
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