Welcome to Trump TV.
That’s how the network TV coverage of this year’s presidential election could be branded.
Donald Trump, cagey media manipulator that he is, is running for president not based on politics or policies, but on the premise that he’s making an extended sales call – the sales call of a lifetime.
He’s the product. And he’s marketing the hell out of it. But, unlike the poor schlubs trying to sell used cars or life insurance or vacation timeshare condos, he’s got the one thing all sales people would give their next quarterly bonus for:
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Thanks to Trump’s gift for driving TV news shows’ ratings up, the networks can’t get enough of the guy. As the New York Times recently reported, the three major networks opted not to provide live coverage of Hillary Clinton’s speech last week to a workers’ union in Las Vegas despite the fact that she was trotting out new attacks against Trump.
What’d they show instead? A live feed of the empty podium where Trump was about to speak in North Dakota. As the Times pointed out, that wasn’t the first time the usually unscripted, always-entertaining Trump got live coverage for a speech while similar Clintonappearances got bypassed.
Trump’s penchant for saying crazy things has earned him more than $2 billion in free media airtime. He’s so dialed-in to what works and doesn’t work on TV that he literally dials in to TV control rooms personally to steer coverage. Today, when he needed to combat bad press about his contributions to veterans’ groups, he did what he always does when he needs to take control of the media narrative: he called a press conference. He’s perhaps the only public figure who can call a press conference and excoriate the media as being unfair to him even as he is, in fact, shamelessly exploiting the media’s thirst for news from him.
As with any aggressive salesman, actual facts aren’t his main concern. Closing the deal is. That’s why his inconsistencies, evasions and outright lies have registered off-the-charts high on political fact-checking sites. But it doesn’t matter to him – or to a disturbing number of voters. Keeping those ratings high and dominating the news cycle – that’s what matters.
That’s why you can barely turn on CNN without seeing Trump somewhere, anywhere, saying something, anything – sometimes saying nothing more than his standard “Make America Great” lines we can all practically recite by heart by now. The substance isn’t important, just the fact that something crazy might get said or done.
Trump gives reporters more access than any normal candidate because that free airtime is the lifeblood of his “self-funded” campaign. For normal candidates, unlimited jousting with reporters is a bad idea. Why? Because, for all their flaws, professional politicians actually take themselves seriously when they stake out a position. What if they say something wrong in an off-the-cuff moment? But Trump has no such worry. He flips and flops – sometimes in one sentence – without batting an eyelash. It’s all negotiable anyway, he says, and aggressive salesmen everywhere smile with recognition.
Politico Magazine grew so frustrated with the politically nonsensical word salads Trump serves up to reporters that it declared that Trump had single-handedly destroyed the century-old institution of the news interview.
I’m not sure what TV news executives can do. But I know what voters should do. Stop treating Trump like a presidential candidate. He’s not a politician running for office.
He’s a salesman, trying to close a deal, with an army of increasingly anguished, hand-wringing journalists in tow, all realizing they’re being manipulated into mass marketing a candidate they loathe personally, but adore professionally.
So when Trump shows up on your TV, appraise him the same way you’d appraise any salesman trying to sell you something. You start out assuming he’s exaggerating. Or flat-out lying. That much is a given. But you always wonder: Is there still a good deal in there somewhere if I can just negotiate my way to it?
There often is, but most of us aren’t savvy enough or ruthless enough to extract it. That’s why we have lemon laws in North Carolina and other states that give you a window in which you can take your your new car back to the showroom if an over-aggressive salesman did a number on you.
But that vote you’ll cast in November? There’s no taking that one back.--Eric Frazier