Friday morning, Donald Trump’s campaign officially acknowledged the resignation of campaign chair Paul Manafort, the most conventional political operative in Trump’s orbit, as part of a larger shakeup of the campaign staff. A shakeup, of course, is exactly what establishment Republican figures have been dreaming of for weeks if not months. But they’re not going to get the one they wanted. Instead of trying to reinvent himself as a more generic, more conventional GOP figure who can take advantage of Hillary Clinton’s own unpopularity, Trump is opting for the self-flattering theory that what’s needed is to let Trump be Trump.
What’s telling, however, is that what that means in specific detail is surrounding himself with media personalities. New campaign CEO Stephen Bannon and new campaign adviser Roger Ailes aren’t business titans who are promising to help Trump come to Washington, roll up his sleeves, and solve problems with some good old-fashioned private sector knowhow.
Indeed, more and more American business leaders are coming out against Trump. Earlier this week, former General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson made a splash with an op-ed saying he’d voted for every Republican presidential candidate in his lifetime but would make an exception for Trump.
Instead, as Trump aims to become the Trumpiest Trump that he can be, he’s increasingly surrounding himself with media figures. Bannon is the impresario behind the Breitbart.com family of websites, and Ailes transformed the media landscape forever with his stewardship of Fox News until being deposed amid allegations of massive abuse of female employees.
It’s hard to imagine today, but thinking back to a year ago you might have thought an outsider Trump campaign would feature an all-star group of business leaders promising to put their heads together to fix what’s ailing America. Tom Barrack and Peter Thiel in roles more substantive than convention speaker. Turnaround artists Carl Icahn and Sam Zell. Brash outsider Mark Cuban. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina from the technology world. It might have been a total disaster, but it would have been something. But instead of a business all-star team, Trump is giving us retreats from far-right media.
It all comes as a reminder of a fundamental truth of this campaign: Trump isn’t really a businessman in the conventional sense anymore, and hasn’t been for some time. He’s a television star.
Donald Trump, celebrity
Try to name the second most famous developer of commercial real estate in New York City and you’ll pretty quickly realize that you can’t. Trump doesn’t stand out from the crowd as the most famous person in this line of work — he’s the only famous person in this line of work. It turns out that at the end of the day, nobody is very interested in real estate development, and real estate developers are mostly obscure.
Trump, by contrast, is a true celebrity: a person who’s famous primarily for being famous.
He earns a lot of money, but his income derives from the fact that he hosts a television show, not from skill at building and running companies. He has business ventures, of course: Trump ties. Trump suits. Trump shirts. But these are celebrity endorsement deals. Stephen Curry has signature sneakers, and Usain Bolt has earned tens of millions of dollars endorsing everything from Gatorade to Visa. But Curry doesn’t run a clothing company any more than drinking Gatorade will let you run as fast as Bolt.
It happens to be the case that fame is a highly monetizable commodity, especially for famous people who are reasonably good on camera.
But there’s a difference between making money as a television star and celebrity endorser and making money as a person who builds and manages businesses. What makes Trump confusing is that the conceit of his television show was that he’s a talented businessman. But just because you see something on a TV show doesn’t make it true. Kit Harington can’t really return from death or lead a medieval army into battle, and David Duchovny doesn’t really solve crimes and arrest people.
Trump really was a businessman for a while, a real estate developer and then a casino mogul, but he was bad at it. He inherited a real estate empire from his father and drove it into bankruptcy. He walked away from the experience with fame. Fame that he was able to leverage, over time, into more fame that he leveraged into more money. It was clever, but it was ultimately savvy media work more than savvy business dealings.
Trump’s campaign has the makings of a hit show
Ailes’s big insight about the news business was that cable changed everything.
Old-time broadcast television news operating according to the principle of scarcity. There were only three networks to watch, and they all did nightly newscasts at the exact same time. With a limited supply of possible things to turn into, cultivating intense loyalists had little value. The important thing was just to get as broad a slice of the pie as possible by being as inoffensive as possible.
On cable with dozens and then hundreds of channels, things were different. Fox News might compete in some sense with CNN. But it equally competes with USA and HGTV and ESPN and everything else out there. In a world of plentiful channels, it really doesn’t matter if some people absolutely despise Fox News. Indeed, it doesn’t really matter if most people absolutely despise Fox News. What counts is that some people have to love it.
Trump’s campaign has precisely this property. His supporters often point to the unusually large size of the crowds he attracts to his rallies as evidence that a silent majority out there stands in support of him. But the original point about Nixon’s silent majority was the exact opposite of this. Many more people vote in any given presidential election than show up to a rally of any kind. Drawing big crowds shows that you have an unusually large number of superfans — exactly what you need to thrive in the highly competitive world of modern media.
Trump may get into media after losing
Presidential politics, by contrast, remains decidedly stuck in the analog age.
Trump-style ideology has fared pretty well in a number of small European countries that use highly proportional electoral systems. In places like Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands, impassioned minorities of populist nationalists have formed large parliamentary blocs that allow them to wield meaningful influence over national politics.
But in the United States, you need a majority — or something close to it — to win. It’s a framework that even in an age of high polarization has always rewarded candidates who are willing to sand down the hard edges of their ideologies in search of a broad audience.
Trump not only hasn’t succeeded at doing that, he’s also never made even a token effort to try.
But his campaign’s latest pivot may help set him up for the next iteration of his media career. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that "in recent months, Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have quietly explored becoming involved with a media holding, either by investing in one or by taking one over." Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, two of the few major Super PAC donors in Trump’s corner, are also investors in Breitbart.
Ailes himself is in need of a next act now that he’s been fired from Fox. And while Trump’s never had the skills necessary to be a good politician, he certainly has the right disposition for media success. Vanity Fair reported all the way back in June that he was interested in starting a new TV news channel. And Breitbart, for all its considerable success, doesn’t yet have the kind of major on-camera talent that Trump would provide.
For now, though, Trump is still running for president. We’ve never had a businessman president, but it’s an idea that’s kicked around routinely in American culture in a range of contexts. The appeal, almost invariably, is that the outsider from the private sector will have management chops that you just don’t find in the bureaucracy or the United States Senate.
But a celebrity candidate is precisely the opposite of this. Someone who gets ahead in life on the strength of individual achievements or force of personality may have some admirable qualities but almost by definition doesn’t depend on coordinating a large team. A Trump campaign that exists entirely as an extension of Trump’s persona is unlikely to win, but it’s at least a viable product. An actual Trump administration that tried to function this way would be a disaster.