Donald Trump may have lost to Joe Biden, but still–what a frighteningly remarkable achievement for The Donald! While putting a blowtorch to democracy, he will have garnered the second most votes of any candidate for the highest office in the land. The prime reason, even if he fails in his re-election bid, is that Trump is the most masterful evil media genius of all time. Too often, the mistake we in the media make is to spend so much of our time on the evil part that we overlook the genius.
It’s an essential question. Why 74 million Americans vote to keep Donald Trump’s racist regime in the White House? What’s wrong with our national psyche, that so many millions went to the polls and said: “Give me four more years of that guy”? They appear oblivious to his homicidal mismanagement of the pandemic, his fueling of white supremacist fever, his epic well-documented grift and his tens of thousands of documented repetitive lies and slander in every conceivable direction?
Back in 2016, in the wake of the GOP convention, I wrote that Trump was the most media savvy presidential candidate ever. I noted that “as FDR was to radio, JFK was to TV and Obama to Facebook, the Donald is to the media-everywhere universe.” With the Oval Office as his platform, Trump got only more brazen and sophisticated at running the multiplatform table, with bile on Fox News, talk radio, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the dark web, and beyond and back again. It’s a full-time media gambit that entertains and emboldens his rabid base and cements the Trump brand to the GOP like it was the neon marquee of a failing casino, still so glittery on the outside.
Recent highlights of Trump’s unexpectedly strong 2020 run include his acceptance of the GOP nomination last August. There he was, the invincible tsunami-coiffed victor in the Rose Garden at an incandescent superspreader black tie event at the most famous home in the world. It’s a direct line and a short walk to this Wednesday’s post-midnight Triumph of the Trump, dishonest victory rant from the East Room stage, swaddled in enormous American flags.
So what if CNN, MSNBC and NPR scream that it was the latest dangerous demagogic lie from the White House? What matters are the millions upon millions of media impressions for the invincible Donald and his adoring minions. On election night Trump knew he might soon be back at Mar A Lago permanently, after his allies at Fox News called Arizona for Biden and also no doubt from his own internal polls. So why not have an Il Duce Mussolini moment and declare he’d beaten back the fake news and the deep state, once again surprising the fake news and its deep state allies and the world beyond that he had won? His evil media genius had worked up to this point, so he did what had led him to the most powerful position in the world and doubled down on his brand.
Post-election, the pundit class has been asking why Trump’s message continues to resonate with so many millions of Americans. It looks at this moment like Biden may have defeated Trump, but the real loser in the election is “democracy,” the New York Times’s Tom Friedman wrote, giving a hat tip to the National Review’s Richard Lowry who opined that for a lot of Trump’s white working class base, The Donald is the only tough guy, “putting the middle finger” in the face of liberal elites from Manhattan to Los Angeles. And everyone from Axios to The Washington Post are braying that once Trump is shown the door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “Trumpism” will still dominate the Republican Party.
Kyle Pope notes in the Columbia Journalism Review that in a sad repeat of 2016, the press oversold the polls and did not dig deep enough to report with a nuanced understanding of Trump’s varied constituency. Pope wisely blames part of the problem on the gutting of news organizations that’s gone on throughout the country for years. That has greatly hindered the quality of news, especially on a local level.
No argument on that front. Sadly, the stress that news organizations are under only adds to Trump’s power. The Donald operates in a media environment that is perfectly suited to his, “I know you are, but what am I” strategy, truth be damned. It’s something chief Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels knew about when he wrote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Who in our history has worked that angle and succeeded more than Trump? The Donald’s evil media genius may not be enough to win the White House again, but it is still enough to have 74 million people vote for him and to no doubt keep Trumpism alive for the foreseeable future.