A pretty good argument can be made that Donald Trump's presidential campaign has been astoundingly calculation free. That is to say he hasn't had an overall strategy about how to run for president and win, and virtually no attention has been paid to the details that can make a difference on Election Day. He hasn't calculated so much as let it all hang out. But when it comes to the news media, Trump not only has had a strategy, he has bragged about it until very recently. That's when it became obvious that not only has a strategy heralded as sheer genius during primary season backfired badly, it is a big reason that Trump is sinking like a stone in the polls and into the murky depths of the Republican fever swamp.
Trump's media strategy has been to suck up all the media oxygen. After Melania Trump's convention speech was revealed to be plagiarism, he claimed the publicity was positive because "all press is good press" and flatly stated that "I have the loudspeaker," an addiction to attention that has come to be associated with the Red Queen Hypothesis by some journalists.
The Red Queen Hypothesis as it applies to Herr Donald goes like this: Each time he says something outrageous to suck up more of that media oxygen, it raises the bar for how outrageous his next statement has to be.
(The Red Queen, of course, was Alice's protagonist in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, which was written as a fantasmagorical game of chess, and is not to be confused with the better known Queen of Hearts from the earlier Alice's Adventure in Wonderland. The Queen of Hearts was merely a loopy character Alice encountered during a strange journey, while the Red Queen was able to move swiftly and effortlessly across the chess board to counter Alice's every move.)
Escalating the outrageousness a la the Red Queen paid great dividends for Trump during the primary season as he vanquished opponents with streams of invective, insults, obscenities and, of course, bald-faced lies, to the tune of an estimated $2 billion in free media. His screaming was headline grabbing, of course. Not so much the tippy-toed walkbacks that inevitably followed his more outrageous lies. But a funny thing happened on the way to the here and now: More and more conservative media began to abandon Trump because he was tarnishing the brand, the mainstream media now smells blood and has begun to question him -- not often enough and sometimes not critically enough when it does -- but a corner has been turned.
A manifestation of this corner turning is Trump's repeated claim last week that he saw a Fox News video of a $400 million cash transfer being made by the U.S. to Iran in exchange for the release of three prisoners who had been held in Teheran. The media pounced, pointing out the payment was unrelated to the prisoners (it was from an aborted 1979 arms deal) and there followed the rarest of occurrences as Trump admitted he was in error:
Trump's hallucination about the video probably would have been unremarked on by the media a few weeks ago and seized on by his supporters as yet another example of Obama-Clinton duplicity, but instead it received widespread ridicule at a time when his poll numbers are tanking so badly that it is not outside the realm of possibilities that Hillary Clinton will win in a landslide of historic (1964) proportions despite being, by some measures, nearly as unpopular as Trump.
Notes Greg Sargent at the WaPo:
"Press coverage tends to get harsher when a candidate gets weaker, and that's what this [prisoner video] episode brought . . . It's becoming increasingly obvious that 'the loudspeaker' is turning voters against Trump, perhaps to the point from which there will be no coming back."
It may have been inevitable that a campaign trafficking in falsehoods eventually would get its comeuppance, but I doubt it. Too many media mavens cling to the shopworn notion that fair reporting means treating both sides equally even when one side is quite unequal. Or to use the analogy of an astute New York Times reader who commented that it is improper to treat creationists who believe the planet is only 6,000 years old with the same gravity as scientists who have proven beyond a doubt that just isn't so.
Trump's pathological inability to straighten out and fly right is more to the point. After all, he concluded a week during which he continued to insult the grieving parents of a Muslim-American war hero, initially refused to endorse Paul Ryan and made several foreign policy gaffes with the assertion that if the U.S. was attacked, all its Japanese allies would do is "sit home and watch Sony television." (Come to think of it, maybe that's why Emperor Akihito announced that he's stepping down.)
To its credit, the Clinton campaign is getting out of Trump's way as he sinks into the swamp and doubling down on headline-generating feel good policy specifics like her jobs plan. And to its discredit, CNN must share much of the blame for leading the media pack in its unquestioning coverage during the primaries in stooping to Trump's level in its ratings race with Fox News. This including most recently giving his hostages-for-millions claim big coverage.
Then there is the theory of my journalist friend David Holmberg, who noted back during Trump's salad days as a Republican nominee-in-the-making that:
"He is a New York character who's jumped on the national stage and so he gets a pass for being who he is."
That was a little appreciated factor in the overwhelmingly uncritical coverage from the time Trump descended deus ex machina from the escalator at his 5th Avenue penthouse 14 months ago to announce his biggest celebrity student ever. But no more.
Trump's reported boast to a confidante that he would win by making sure the media "never take the lights off of me" was half accurate. The winning part was not.
POLITIX UPDATE IS WRITTEN BY SHAUN MULLEN, A VETERAN JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER FOR WHOM THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IS HIS 12th SINCE 1968. CLICK HERE FOR AN INDEX OF PREVIOUS COLUMNS.
© 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN
IMAGE FROM TIM BURTON'S ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)