Donald Trump has benefited more from his relationship with the media than any candidate in modern political history. But all that’s about to change.
The media love an underdog, and that’s what Trump was when he began his campaign for the presidency. Even more, reporters are suckers for a Drudge-worthy headline and TV producers want the crawl beneath the feed to sizzle on the screen. Trump provided plenty of heat for both print and broadcast. And there’s no question his freakish mastery of message — in 140-character bites — sent the stick-it-online-as-fast-as-you-can contemporary media ethos into overdrive.
When all of that was aimed at defeating a string of Republican pretenders to the nomination — many of whom wilted under modest pressure — the media didn’t have a dog in the fight other than a good story.
Sure, he got called out for targeting the little guy — Mexican immigrants, Muslims and a disabled reporter — but most of his venom was aimed at candidates, celebrities and media stars with big enough platforms that it’s hard to think of them as defenseless victims of bullying.
Trump was afflicting the comfortable, just like reporters do, and he was doing it with panache. It’s hard to look at a scion of the Bush family and conclude he’s being treated unfairly because someone called him “low energy.” In old newspaper parlance, Trump made for great copy.
Moreover, there were so many candidates in the race that it was hard for campaign reporters to handle much more than reporting what he said — even when it was obviously untrue.
Well, that phase of the Trump candidacy is over, and he knows it. Now, he’s the comfortable one, and he’s in for some serious affliction. His enfant-terrible press conference in New York on Tuesday demonstrated just how prickly he is when questioned. He called one reporter for a major news organization a “sleaze” and practically bawled over being forced to donate money to veterans after he had promised to do so months ago.
Every rock in every corner of his unscrupulously lived life will be turned over in the coming months. His complaint about bias is no different than those lodged by winning and losing Republican candidates in every election in memory. He may be right. Ask John McCain , who was a media darling right up until the point that he became the Republican nominee in 2008. McCain, too, had an insurgent, underdog feel to his candidacy. But making it into the final round of the presidential campaign stripped that away, and bearing the GOP standard will do the same for Trump.
Rather than an outsider translating the message of the masses, Trump will start to take shape as a silver-spooner who used his money to try to buy politicians — by his own admission — and looked for every angle to take advantage of those less fortunate than himself. In a country that has moved ever so slowly and steadily toward the Constitution’s ideals of equality and opportunity, his Archie Bunker-like zeal for insulting and threatening minorities and women will fuel countless stories of which there is a singular point: He’s no champion of the common man.
Indeed, there can be little doubt that his poor national approval ratings are tied directly to the bullying behavior , particularly in instances when he sets his sights on the little guy. Rather than systematically going after one group before the next, Trump’s impatience and intolerance drive him to target everyone he disdains at once. Abraham Lincoln said you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
With each passing day, Trump’s mantle of Republican nominee will look more and more like the new clothes of a petty emperor.
When the stories about the powerful guy taking advantage of the meek keep coming — and they will — it won’t be because the media are angry at Trump out of personal pique. It will be because reporters are doing their jobs, exposing him for what he is and who he has been.
Trump’s lucky that he’ll be facing off against Clinton , a candidate about as unpopular. He has a chance now to right his ship and that of the GOP, but he’s shown no signs of abandoning the bullying and lying that are the hallmarks of his campaign thus far. And his free ride is over. The question now is whether Trump can handle the truth.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.
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