June should have been Donald Trump’s month. Although Bernie Sanders has backed off his attacks on Hillary Clinton, she’s technically still fighting a two-front war. A well-prepared presumptive Republican nominee would have used this opportunity to pivot, build up campaign infrastructure, and establish the dominant narrative for general election. Instead, Trump’s campaign has been disaster ever since his racist comments about the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University. It’s only gotten worse this week. He’s getting crushed in the most recent national polls, and some Republicans have revived talk of a convention coup.
What’s Trump doing to change the narrative—that is, besides firing embattled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski? Not much, other than tweeting. Trump hasn’t run an ad since early-May and he has only 30 paid staffers to Clinton’s 800. Now we know why, after yet more bad news surfaced this week: Trump has less than $2 million in the bank, according to FEC filings—that’s less than Ben Carson, whose campaign ended in March. Clinton, meanwhile, has more than $40 million, and she’s spending it: Her campaign recently dropped $20 million on ads designed to bury Trump where he stands. Unable to make a similar buy without an infusion of cash from Trump Inc., his people made their first attempt at rapid response on Tuesday, firing off no fewer than nine emails. It only enhanced the sense that everything was falling apart.
The press has reported these developments with borderline glee, much as it did a year ago when Trump descended that escalator in Trump Tower to declare his candidacy. In the interim, there have been ceaseless accusations that the press “created” Trump and enabled his rise by gifting him priceless “free media” that nonetheless has been estimated in the billions. Whether or not that’s accurate, one vital thing has changed recently: The consumers of that free media. With the general election matchup decided, the audience has gotten a lot bigger—and suddenly he’s finding that his hateful, ignorant rhetoric isn’t as popular as it once seemed.
The media may be partly to “blame” for Trump’s rise, but his reliance on relentless press coverage is coming back to haunt him. The press’ glee during the primary season lulled him into a false sense of security, and now it may doom his campaign.
A month ago, Jon Stewart appeared on David Axelrod’s podcast The Axe Files and made a rare return to political discourse (judging by headlines I’ve seen over recent months, he appears to be spending his retirement tending to livestock and growing a Letterman beard). Since Stewart left The Daily Show, many have pined for his voice—particularly his take on the man he once labeled “Fuckface Von Clownstick”—and his conversation with Axelrod was a window into how he would have covered Trump if his show were still on Comedy Central four nights a week.
It should come as no surprise that Stewart was highly critical of the media’s role in Trump’s rise. “The media is no longer predator and prey, which I think should be the relationship,” he told Axelrod, “but a Remora that’s just attached underneath, hoping for crumbs that fall off the shark.” If Stewart were still on the airwaves, he likely would have been one of the main proponents of the theory that Trump is the media’s fault.
But it wasn’t necessary for Stewart to make the case. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves more or less confirmed the hypothesis at a conference in March, saying of Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Meanwhile, journalists of all stripes condemned the media’s role in Trump’s rise. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the media was helpless before his candidacy. “He’s a reality TV star. He knows how to do this and he’s good at this. And he’s turned this—what is essentially a television show into a show where he is the star and we can’t live without it.” The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof declared Trump’s candidacy his “shared shame,” arguing that “the media made Trump,” while the paper’s media critic, Jim Rutenberg, diagnosed a massive journalistic failure: “In the end, you have to point the finger at national political journalism, which has too often lost sight of its primary directives in this election season: to help readers and viewers make sense of the presidential chaos; to reduce the confusion, not add to it; to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right.”
There’s no question that Trump was dependent on free media throughout the primaries. According to a Times report in March, two months before he declared victory, Trump had earned $2 billion in free media, a mark the thrifty and wealth-obsessed candidate was surely both aware and proud of. By the end of the campaign, that number had risen to $3 billion. And Trump’s use of free media was integral to his campaign, especially when he was running against sixteen other candidates. The networks aired his rallies and speeches more or less without comment or interruption, unless there was violence, thus preventing other candidates from gaining any momentum. For months he kept the cameras focused on him and not Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or poor Jeb Bush—and when those other candidates got airtime, it was just as likely because Trump had picked on them than because of something they had done or said. This allowed Trump to run a remarkably cheap, efficient campaign. He has spent only $19 million on ads; Jeb Bush’s super PAC spent $70 million, and he exited the race in late February.
But this strategy also means that Trump has no real campaign to speak of. His strategy is based entirely on getting free media, but, with only one opponent, this strategy has a fatal flaw: It’s also pretty easy for Hillary Clinton to go on television and get free media. She has used her turn in the spotlight to turn the tables on Trump, effectively branding him as a danger to national security, but she also doesn’t need to rely on free media: She has a strong ground game, with 150 staffers in Ohio alone, and is running advertisements across the country.
Trump’s reliance on free media, meanwhile, has led to incidents such as Jake Tapper’s pressuring him on his racist comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a clip that went viral because the CNN reporter asked the same question 24 times. Trump’s speech after the Orlando massacre, his most fascistic to date, proved that he was attempting to capitalize politically off of one of the worst tragedies in recent American history. It didn’t work—and neither did his tweet, just hours after the shooting, thanking everyone for “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
Everything Trump says is backfiring now, but he keeps doing it because he knows no other strategy. That may be because he doesn’t have the resources to do anything differently, but it may also be a choice. Trump thought that he could cheap-out on the election and conduct an insurgent national campaign—that he could win with only rallies and tweets and television appearances. Declaring that you’ll ban Muslims from the country or “bomb the shit” out of ISIS might work when you’re running against 16 people in an election decided by 20 million conservative people, but it hurts you when you’re running against one person in an election one hundred and thirty million vote in.
It may be too late. Mitt Romney and John McCain both got late starts in 2012 and 2008, respectively, and Trump is doing even worse than they were doing at a similar point in the campaign. But Trump could still pivot. Rhetorically, he could learn to use a dog whistle instead of saying things that are outright racist, a shift everyone expected of him weeks ago. And structurally, he could build a more robust and ordinary campaign. He could raise money. He could take a ton of money from Wall Street, while building field staffs composed of people willing to apologize for him when necessary. (Despite being recently deposed, Lewandowski apparently informed donors on Thursday that the Trump campaign will hire 150 staffers.) Even though he’s broke, he could probably get un-broke pretty quickly: He could self-finance or suck up to some rich people.
But this presupposes that Trump quickly learns the right lessons from the media games that he’s played over the last year. All evidence points to the contrary. He’s spent a year building up bad political habits and getting away with them. Now he’s finding out that he can’t get away with being an unapologetic racist any longer and that journalists will press him on his contentious claims. His comments at rallies may excite people like this guy, but Trump can’t win the presidency on the back of resentment alone—you at least need a ground game to normalize that resentment. And the media, in the ultimate act of revenge for all the reporters he’s banned, is refusing to do that normalization for him: They’re letting Trump bury himself with his own words. As it turns out, not all press is good press.