Donald Trump’s speech rebutting the growing swirl of sexual assault charges around him has a lot going on in it, but for my money the most important section came in the middle, when Trump went into a full-bore attack on the press.
“Let’s be clear on one thing,” he said, “The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism.”
Complaining about media coverage is nothing new from a political campaign, and certainly Hillary Clinton’s team has leveled plenty of complaints of their own. But Trump goes well beyond the standard campaign rhetoric to engage in a wholesale, broad-brush effort to entirely discredit the entire existing media ecosystem. It’s another example of a candidate who is moving beyond trying to win and pivoting to trying to make excuses for himself to lay the groundwork for his next act.
Trump says his followers must entirely reject the press
Trump’s thesis is not that reporters are out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans or implicitly biased in favor of liberals. He argues instead that the whole enterprise is root and branch untrustworthy:
They're a political special interest, no different than any lobbyist or other financial entity with a total political agenda, and the agenda is not for you. It's for themselves. And their agenda is to elect Crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy. For them, it's a war. And for them, nothing at all is out of bounds.
He continued to argue that as a matter of conscience, people on the Trump Train need to reject the existing media ecosystem entirely:
This election will determine whether we're a democracy or, in fact, controlled by a handful of special global interests, rigging the system, and our system is rigged. This is reality. You know it, they know it, and pretty much the whole world knows it. The establishment and their media neighbors wield control over this nation through means that are very well-known. Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, rapist, xenophobe, and morally deformed. They will attack you. They will slander you. They will seek to destroy your career and your family.
This is much too broad-brush an argument to possibly work as a winning election campaign. People who get their news from CNN or the New York Times or People or Vox or wherever do so because they like those outlets. Complaining about particular stories or reporters is one thing, but only someone who already lives inside the Trump Bubble is going to find this argument persuasive, and to win an election he needs to reach people outside the bubble.
What this argument does do is offer Trump fans a ready explanation for why Trump lost the election.
Trump needs to salvage his brand
Trump is going to lose the election no matter what he does over the next four weeks. But he can still influence how he is perceived in the wider universe of conservatives. His problem is that the mainstream view among Republican Party elected officials and political operatives is deeply unflattering.
These people, including the ones who are supporting Trump, mostly feel that he is a weak candidate who is likely blowing what should be a very winnable race for the GOP. Many Republicans who sincerely prefer Trump to Clinton, in other words, nonetheless think Trump is bad for the party and hope that after the election he will go away so they can move on to greener pastures.
But taking personal responsibility for his own failings is anathema to Trump. More than a winning strategy, he needs a scapegoat.
And the media is in many ways a perfect scapegoat, because it sets up Trump for a next act.
Trump is likely setting himself up as a media entrepreneur
Despite Trump’s attacks on “the media,” the fact of the matter is that the CEO of his campaign, Steve Bannon, used to run a media company — Breitbart.com, in which a major Trump donor, the Mercer family, is also a major investor.
Bannon has not, thus far, managed to do much to help Trump win the presidency. But his stewardship of Breitbart has shown real savvy and effectiveness in building up a digital-native conservative media brand. What Bannon’s site doesn’t have much of, at this point, is the kind of on-camera talent that could turn Breitbart into a video juggernaut. Trump himself, however, is an experienced television host, as is Trump’s close ally Sean Hannity, who is thought to be considering a departure from Fox News.
Also closely in the Trump orbit are Roger Ailes, the business genius who built Fox into the cable enterprise it is today before being ousted for sexual harassment, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who owns the New York Observer.
While Trump and his team do not appear capable of winning a general election in the United States, they certainly have the right mix of skills and experience to operate a successful media company, folding the existing Breitbart and Hannity franchises together with the Trump brand to form Trump TV or Trump Media.
But to pull it off, they can’t exit the 2016 campaign surrounded by the stink of a loser. That makes their impending electoral defeat a pretty serious problem. A campaign to scapegoat the establishment press for Trump’s electoral defeat makes the perfect exit strategy.