Donald Trump’s true gift is his uncanny ability to capture the attention of the news media.
His declaration during Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate that he may not accept defeat in three weeks captured global headlines, once again making him the lead story in the world, even as his chances of winning are essentially vanishing.
But this is nothing new. There are countless other examples of successful attention-getting in Trump’s past, including his crusade against the Central Park Five in 1989, and the six weeks in 2011 where he monopolized TV news with his quest to find Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
In fact, one way to look at Trump’s run for the presidency is as an attention-getting, brand-building exercise from start to finish. And in that context, this latest twist makes even more sense: It turns his otherwise sputtering campaign into a sort of dystopian season of “The Apprentice” where viewers watch for the cliffhanger: Will Trump bow out gracefully, or will he rally his supporters to declare his loss the result of a grand conspiracy?
Not coincidentally, a half hour before the start of Wednesday’s debate, his campaign launched #TrumpTV, a livestream on his Facebook featuring Trump surrogates — leading to speculation that this served as a sort of a beta test for a rumored Trump-helmed television network. With that network, Trump could seek to monetize a panicked support base.
On November 9, when Trump likely loses the presidential election in a big way, the news media will face a moment of truth: Will they continue to obsessively cover him and his post-election antics? Or will they ignore him?
They should ignore him.
And ignore means ignore. It doesn’t mean giving him half the air time he received during the campaign, or a quarter. It doesn’t mean covering his crazed claims and conspiracy theories and bringing on a panel of guests to debate them or fact-check them.
It’s appropriate to talk about the legitimate grievances Trump co-opted — such as the flaws of the global trade regime or excessive Washington, D.C., coziness. It’s also appropriate to talk about the strains of nativism in the United States that he sought to tap into. But those discussions should be about the issues, not about Trump.
Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Al Gore all saw their media coverage plummet to almost nonexistence following their defeats — so why should Trump be treated any differently?
Throughout the campaign, the media has been Trump’s best ally. From the start of primary season through February 2016, Trump received an estimated $2 billion of free media from network executives. (By comparison, John McCain spent around $400 million for his entire 2008 campaign).
For the corporate media, Trump provided gripping TV and easy ratings with next to no work — just set up cameras in front of his events and let him talk. “Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” CBS chief executive Les Moonves told investors last year.
Trump’s actual political operation, on the other hand, has been barely existent. In July, his campaign spent more money on t-shirts and hats than it did on campaign staff. Without willing media coverage, Trump is little more than a moment, not a movement. Without cameras pointed at him, his relevance has a far shorter half-life than an actual political insurgency. Trump is far more Groucho Marx than Karl Marx.
And some in the media have come to realize that offering nonstop — and unfiltered — coverage of Trump for the past year and a half was a mistake. CNN President Jeff Zucker — who previously elevated Trump by airing “The Apprentice” when he was NBC president — admitted as much during a recent talk at Harvard.
“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” he said. “Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”
By the time Trump had secured the Republican presidential nomination, journalists had no choice but to cover the spectacle as news. But come November 9, Zucker and other media bigwigs will have a chance to make the right call.
Trump’s campaign has been crafted around a man who transformed his Twitter trolling into real-life trolling. Trolls thrive on attention. They wither without it.
And think of all the time the news media would suddenly have to spend on matters that are actually in the public interest.
By contrast, every additional second of attention the media gives him after the election will be that much more free publicity.
If Trump decides to build a media empire, he can do it without the willing assistance of the media we already have. They’ve done him enough favors already.
Correction: October 23, 2016
The date of Trump’s crusade against the Central Park Five was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.