The collapse of Donald Trump’s campaign, along with fresh reporting that suggests people in his orbit are eyeing a Trump-branded future in right-wing media, has revived speculation about his post-election plans.
The Financial Times reported Monday that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the owner of the New York Observer, “has informally approached one of the media industry’s top dealmakers about the prospect of setting up a Trump television network after the presidential election in November.”
The growing consensus among observers is that Trump has neither the money nor the inclination nor the discipline nor the disposition to stand up a capital-intensive cable network which would more likely fail than succeed.
“There’s little doubt that the current Trump team is planning to build some kind of media and political infrastructure for Trumpism in the likely event that he loses,” wrote The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “But there are several reasons to doubt that it could get a full-scale cable news network off the ground.”
Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall agrees, predicting that “if there’s a post-campaign Trump media vehicle it’s far more likely to be a bargain-basement but perhaps high traffic website on the model of Breitbart: garish, crazy but with a ready market of deplorables who come to TrumpNews.com for their news.”
As Lizza and Marshall outline, there are many reasons a Trump TV channel or a Trump Media Group makes no sense as a business proposition, but the most important one is best reflected in the fact that Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s nominee for president. The GOP itself may have been ripe for disruption and coopting, but that’s in large part because of the excellent job conservative media has done Trumpifying the party’s base.
Republicans in Congress, though procedurally radicalized and in thrall to this base in many ways, are still responsible for essential government functions and for their own re-elections. They must keep the government running, and keep divisive language to a minimum. Those obligations make GOP leaders ripe targets for Trumpist media figures, who portray them as weak capitulators more concerned with their party and their place within the hierarchy of the Washington establishment than with delivering on behalf of the American (read: white) people. With that, the chase is on: Republican voters become aggrieved, Republican officials adapt to satisfy them, right-wing media imposes new tests on them that they can’t possibly pass when it comes time to govern or win re-election, and the cycle repeats.
Trump succeeded as a GOP politician because he promised to ignore all the niceties of governing and impose his will upon the system. But there’s no niche for him to fill in the right-wing media ecosystem, which set that cycle in motion with perfect efficiency.
To see how this works, look no further than the following two incidents from Monday. The first one began on Sunday with this tweet:
Anyone who took the time to scroll through @randygdub’s timeline would have gotten the joke. But a befuddled right-wing blogger at Gateway Pundit got taken in by it, and, without doing even a moment’s due diligence, claimed, “POSTAL WORKER Brags Online About Destroying Trump Ballots.”
Betsy Woodruff of The Daily Beast explored the full depth of the ensuing failure, but the short version is that Matt Drudge linked to the completely false blog post and Rush Limbaugh passed it along from there as gospel to his millions of listeners. The post has been updated (“So this Twitter user now says his tweet was a joke.”), but also has amassed more than 70,000 Facebook likes and 16,000 tweets.
So severe was the outcry that Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has admirably criticized Trump for calling the integrity of our elections into question, promised to get to the bottom of this obvious hoax, for the benefit of Drudge and Limbaugh’s gullible followers.
Even if Trump weren’t already doing his best to convince his supporters the election will be stolen from him, his allies in the existing right-wing media would do it on his behalf to great effect. That’s because conservative media is already heavily Trumpified, and was so before Trump came along.
The other aforementioned incident involves Senator John McCain, who promised a Philadelphia-based talk radio host that Republicans “will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up. I promise you.”
This is either a promise to provoke a legitimation crisis, or a promise that won’t be kept. In either case, it is symptomatic of the ways conservative media pushes Republican elected officials to pander to conservative voters—with maximal commitments to prevent imaginary apocalypses, precipitating either political crises or disaffection in right-wing ranks.
McCain ultimately walked back the promise in an official statement from his communications director, but the damage was done, and it was done because—I repeat—conservative media is already heavily Trumpified, and was so before Trump came along.
If and when Hillary Clinton becomes president, the right-wing media, which has brooked some dissent from a handful of anti-Trump conservatives, will reunite in opposition to Clinton’s agenda, her nominees, and perhaps even the idea that she should be impeached.
When she inevitably logs victories against Republicans in Congress—by reshaping the Supreme Court, for instance, or avoiding impeachment—it will be treated as capitulation by the conservative media, which will promote savior figures who, like Trump, promise to succeed where the Republican establishment failed. Those figures will become the Republican Party’s de facto future leaders—including, perhaps, its next presidential nominee—unless current ones figure out a way to break the cycle that spat out Trump for good. But between Drudge and Limbaugh and Breitbart and Fox News and their useful feeders like Gateway Pundit, they have their work cut out for them. The elbow room that existed for Trump within the party does not exist in its crowded market of media organs.
Trump won the GOP nomination because the conservative media was already heavily Trumpified, and a Trump media conglomerate makes no sense because the conservative media will remain Trumpified once the election is over.