clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump's only significant campaign skill is manipulating the media. But he's great at it.

Trump uses three main tactics to exploit the conventions of nonpartisan journalism.

Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Donald Trump lacks most campaign skills. He knows almost nothing about foreign or domestic policy and isn't even very good at pretending he does. When he is asked a question requiring any level of detailed policy knowledge, he visibly makes it up as he goes along. As Chris Hayes has pointed out, it appears that everything he knows about politics and American public policy he has learned from obsessively watching cable news channels.

He shows no skill or motivation for fundraising. He can't run a functional campaign organization at the national, state, or local level. In many ways, his campaign barely exists at all. He is mostly unable to change his message or style when he needs to appeal to a general election, rather than a primary, electorate. He doesn't have the discipline to resist being baited by his political opponents, as when Gold Star parents Ghazala and Khizr Khan criticized him at the Democratic National Convention.

Yet Trump does have one major political skill: He is very good at manipulating the news media.

This should not be surprising. It's a throughline in all the varying business ventures he has been involved with. He was not an especially successful real estate developer or casino mogul, but he was the best at getting publicity for his ventures.

Licensing his name to sell ties, steaks, or a fraudulent university or drumming up ratings for a reality television show all involve getting publicity. Essentially, his whole life he has been working the press to build up his Trump brand, increasing its prominence and associating it in the public's mind with wealth and success, even though the evidence that he is actually a billionaire is, to be polite, mixed.

In his most successful book, 1987's The Art of the Deal, he mentions that he thinks a lot about strategies for managing the press. He describes publicizing his new development projects: "I like to be accommodating. As long as they want to shoot, I'll shovel." He previews much of his campaign strategy when he says, "Most reporters, I find, have very little interest in exploring the substance of a detailed proposal for a development. They look instead for the sensational angle."

Elsewhere in the book, he writes, "One thing I've learned about the press is that they're always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. ... The point is that if you are a little different, a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you." At another point, he says, "I'm not saying they necessarily like me. Sometimes they write positively, and sometimes they write negatively. But from a pure business point of view, the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks."

The book was ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz, who now loudly opposes Trump's presidential candidacy. But nothing Schwartz has said, nor any of Trumps behavior, suggests that that these words don't reflect Trump's own sentiments.

I don't know how often Trump does this by instinct versus conscious effort. But he is very good at exploiting the press's weaknesses. He senses the seams in the conventions of ordinary political journalism and pushes right at those weak points. There are three basic strategies he follows. The first was more effective in the primaries than in the general election. But he is still using the second and third methods to put reporters in awkward positions.

1) Using shock to dominate the news

Violating political and social taboos is part of his political brand. So almost anything outrageous he says doesn't surprise his core supporters. All year, open-ended interviews with Trump supporters have indicated that they know all about his erratic tendencies and hope he will calm down once in office, think it is a positive because it is evidence that he isn't controlled by the establishment, or see it as proof that he will shake up a distrusted political system. Unlike other candidates, he won't alienate his supporters by acting this way because they already know this about him.

As the quote from The Art of the Deal points out, Trump sees shocking behavior as a way to dominate press coverage. In the primary season, whenever news coverage would shift toward other Republican candidates for a few days, Trump would say or tweet something controversial. This strategy can be effective in presidential primaries because simply getting more coverage than other candidates often helps, even if the coverage often doesn't depict you positively.

In contrast to the general election, there are fewer ideological (and no party) differences between the candidates. So voters have much less to go on when choosing, and so might use how much news coverage a candidate gets as a rough measure of a candidate's campaign skills, and thus how formidable the would be in the general election.

Even if voters were choosing based just on ideological differences, it might be most rational to choose only among the two or three candidates who are getting the most press attention because they are the only ones with a chance to win the nomination. For all these reasons, getting more press attention can help, even if it alienates some Republicans.

This tactic is much less effective in the fall campaign. Unlike the crowded primary field, in the general election the two major party nominees aren't struggling to get new coverage. They are pretty much guaranteed to have high name recognition by Election Day.

Trump's indifference during the primaries to whether his media coverage made him appealing to most of the electorate left him very well-known but also the most unpopular major party nominee in the modern history of polling when he wrapped up the nomination. Trump has struggled to leave behind his style of being deliberately shocking. It seems too instinctual for him at this point.

2) Creating false balance

On the other hand, one of his media tactics that works better than ever in the general election is creating false equivalence. The easiest way for journalists to avoid accusations of bias is to organize their prose so that they spend a similar amount of space on the strengths and weaknesses of both candidates. Unless they have always been opinion writers or bloggers, most journalists are socialized to use a balanced structure when possible. They will sometimes deviate if the facts warrant it, but balance has a gravitational pull that Trump is good at exploiting.

One of Trump's main rhetorical strategies on the campaign trail is to take his own weaknesses and simply hurl those same accusations back at Clinton. This is why Slate's Jamelle Bouie calls much of Trump's rhetoric "an exercise in projection." Trump says of Clinton, "Well, look, she's a liar ... the whole thing is a scam with [Bill and Hillary]. Everything is a scam, like grifters." On Clinton's racial views, Trump says, "She's totally bigoted, there's no question about that." Bouie points out an astonishing stump speech where Trump says:

Hillary Clinton has been running a hate-filled and negative campaign, with no policy, no solutions and no new ideas. By contrast, I've been going around the country offering very detailed plans for reform and change. All of these reform plans are available on our website, and they're extensive, but we have no choice.

All these things would be much more accurate if Clinton said them about Trump (as she often does) rather than the reverse.

The epitome of Trump's use of this strategy was probably in August, when Clinton gave a long a detailed speech outlining Trump's affiliation (and bringing into the mainstream) of the so called "alt-right" movement, which includes websites like Breitbart that are much more racist and sexist than conventional conservative pundits and politicians. Trump responded by saying simply and without much elaboration, "She is a bigot. ... Her policies are bigoted because she knows they're not going to work."

This puts nonpartisan journalists in a tough position. The easiest thing is to say that both sides accuse each other of being racists, serial liars, or scam artists. To try to adjudicate which of the dueling claims is more accurate (or to ignore Trump's ridiculous accusations altogether) opens one up to accusations of bias. Trump makes it much easier for reporters to just report both sides' accusations as equivalent.

The August exchange is described in as "Trump and Clinton are each portraying the other as discriminatory toward African-Americans." Politico's headline was "Trump and Clinton throw more blows in bigotry fight." The lead paragraph of the Washington Post's article on the exchange said:

A series of racially charged accusations dominated the presidential campaign Thursday, with Democrat Hillary Clinton accusing Donald Trump of "taking hate groups mainstream," while the Republican nominee repeatedly claimed that Clinton is a "bigot" toward African Americans.

And on and on. See Ed Kilgore for a summary. It doesn't much matter whose accusations are backed up by more evidence. As long as Trump is making essentially the exact same claim that Clinton is, it is almost impossible for nonpartisan reporters to avoid treating them equally.

3) Lying too brazenly for journalists to correct

Journalists who want to preserve a reputation for being nonpartisan also have trouble when a politician lies so brazenly that there is no way to correct him without appearing to directly criticize or get in a confrontation with that politician. Most normal politicians shade the truth or spin reality. Yet almost all avoid blatant lying and will act defensive if called out for an inaccuracy.

However, when Trump states something that is clearly false, and insists on it even when confronted by a reporter, it is tough to proceed without the reporter calling Trump a liar. If the reporter is worried that pressing this issue this way would make her seem partisan, she might just let the issue drop — better to leave it to the Clinton campaign or other journalists who are designated fact-checkers than to press the issue.

An example of this was in NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum, when Trump told Matt Lauer that he had opposed the war in Iraq, despite there being audio of him supporting it at the time. The fact that Trump supported the Iraq War yet often lies about it now had been widely reported before Lauer's interview. Still, when someone repeats an established falsehood so directly and shamelessly, it is hard to point it out without appearing so critical of the candidate as to be partisan.

Reporting norms work better when a candidate shades the truth in smaller ways and will not simply ignore major contradictory evidence once it has been pointed out in the media. When a candidate continues to insist that up is down, week after week of the campaign, you can either drop the subject or appear confrontational and risk losing your nonpartisan reputation.

One flag factory too many

All three of these tactics work very well at getting Trump better press coverage than would otherwise be enjoyed by an inexperienced, ill-informed candidate whom most conservative foreign policy and economic experts and both living Republican former presidents refuse to endorse. But there is a limit. Political journalists sometimes turn against campaigns that they feel are too manipulative. In John Zaller's terminology, journalists don't just want to appear nonpartisan; they also want to appear to have an independent "voice."

A classic example of this (mentioned by Zaller) is 1988, when the George H.W. Bush campaign made American flags a major focus. As Paul F. Boller tells it in his book Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush, the Bush campaign emphasized flags in order to portray itself as more patriotic than the Dukakis campaign.

Bush's was "the most flag-bedecked campaign in U.S. history." Bush always spoke in front of numerous flags and handed out small flags to the audience. He boasted that flag sales were higher under President Reagan than President Carter. He visited Findlay, Ohio, known as "flag city" because so many flags are made there. But after a subsequent visit to a flag factory in New Jersey, reporters started writing about (and discussing on the news) that this was a cynical, manipulative strategy. Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater later said that the New Jersey visit "was one flag factory too many."

Some of Trump's tactics have started to provoke a backlash. There are many examples of mainstream news organizations getting so fed up with the brazen lying that they directly discuss it in major news stories. The New York Times has at least once put a "news analysis" story about Trump's dishonesty on the front page, above the fold, a location usually reserved for straight news stories, not "analysis."

Yet perhaps Trump's biggest "one flag factory too many" moment was when he told news organizations that he would renounce his previous claims that President Obama wasn't born in this country. Trump's campaign event was covered live on all the major cable news channels. But instead of simply renouncing birtherism, most of the event involved Trump publicizing his newly completed hotel in Washington, DC, and various supporters touting his candidacy.

Only at the very end did Trump give a brief statement on birtherism, rejecting it while introducing the new false claim that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement and that Trump somehow put it to rest: "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period."

The coverage was not positive. Cable television journalists appeared very annoyed at Trump right after the event was over. While some coverage simply reported that he had denounced birtherism, a substantial portion of news stories mentioned that Trump had talked about birtherism fairly little at the event and that his short statement contained new factual errors.

I don't know what the future holds. Yet I do think a crucial question for the rest of the campaign is whether Trump's very astute tactics for dealing with the press continue to work. If political journalists feel more and more manipulated and it prompts a backlash of more negative coverage, things could get harder for the Trump campaign.