Nick Confessore, a political reporter for the New York Times, was on MSNBC yesterday to discuss how Donald Trump has leveraged free media to support his presidential campaign. In the midst of the segment, MSNBC cut away to...give Donald Trump more free media.
This dynamic—the press distracting itself from self-recriminating lamentations over Trump’s increasing popularity to give more airtime to his Rorschachian stump speeches—is rendered all the more ironic for the fact that Trump spends a not-insubstantial amount of time fomenting resentment against the media whose attention he courts.
But, as Confessore later pointed out on Twitter, the notion that Trump is solely a product of the coverage he successfully attracts is a misguided one, and one that ignores the fact that there is something about his performance that speaks to people—they’re not just showing up to his rallies, they’re voting for him. (At least for now.)
The relevant counterfactual, then, is this: Were Trump not to receive so much coverage, would he have spent the money necessary to compensate for that fact? Poor Jeb Bush’s super PAC dropped $84 million on advertising and look where it got him.
Except, like all counterfactuals, this is a meaningless thing to ask. The Trump that MSNBC cut away for on Sunday is the Trump that has always been and always ever was going to be. As Mark Singer wrote in his 1997 profile of Trump for the New Yorker, the man is, essentially, a performance artist:
A securities analyst who has studied Trump’s peregrinations for many years believes, “Deep down, he wants to be Madonna.” In other words, to ask how the gods could have permitted Trump’s resurrection is to mistake profound superficiality for profundity, performance art for serious drama. A prime example of superficiality at its most rewarding: the Trump International Hotel & Tower, a fifty-two-story hotel-condominium conversion of the former Gulf & Western Building, on Columbus Circle, which opened last January. The Trump name on the skyscraper belies the fact that his ownership is limited to his penthouse apartment and a stake in the hotel’s restaurant and garage, which he received as part of his development fee. During the grand-opening ceremonies, however, such details seemed not to matter as he gave this assessment: “One of the great buildings anywhere in New York, anywhere in the world.”
As Trump’s business acumen then was nothing more than an “opera-buffa parody of wealth,” his political acumen now is nothing more than opera-buffa parody of politics. The real question is not whether Trump would have spent money on campaign ads if the media wasn’t so willing to cover his every ridiculous move but whether the difference between Trump and the other candidates, in either party, is one of degree, or one of kind—whether he has taken this whole, absurd process to its horrifying and brutal conclusion.
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