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In the beginning, Donald Trump had media-mogul ambitions—Hugh Hefner’s. The burning idea for the unattached American man, as enshrined in Hef’s first Playboy editorial in December 1953, was to preside over an apartment, “mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” The same month Hef staked his claim on the ambition of the rising American man, the first color television sets went on sale. Sociologists heralded a new age of leisure. Trump was only seven years old, but a template was in formation, awaiting its proper hero.
Hef was a scrambler who would go on to build a niche empire out of images. Hef’s idea of luxury was a mansion. Trump, the scion of a Queens real-estate tycoon, started out in a mansion, grew up there, and had grander ambitions. He would construct his own Manhattan apartment—a triplex penthouse looming in marble over Fifth Avenue. Trump may yet prove a literal media mogul, but he has long known that there’s more than one way to own media. In the flush of prosperity, in a feverishly ambitious society, he quickly understood that ambition itself is the stuff of spectacle, that surface is golden, that flash not only catches the attention of crowds, but enraptures them. What began as attention could be converted to adoration. When he was still building buildings rather than simply selling his name to adorn them, he built towers of flash. But that was only the start of his supreme career in showmanship. Media hungered for him as he hungered for them. Through all available media, he proceeded to create himself as a titan of leisure—pageantry, gambling, golf—in a culture that celebrates itself celebrating celebrity. An indifferent student in most ways, he was adroit in the arts of self-promotion, learning the ins and outs of the culture’s star-making machinery, even devising new wrinkles.
A banner advertising The Apprentice outside the Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.
So to speak of media “impact” on Trump’s toxic career is flabby and imprecise. To speak of the media’s “role” is fatuous to the point of euphemism. Even to speak of “complicity” isn’t the half of it. We are talking about something graver and deeper, something like the relationship of sewage to excrement. Or if that’s one simile too far, terms such as co-dependency, symbiosis, reciprocal lust, and mutual exploitation may convey the intimate relationship between Trump and the machinery of glitz that has become so sickeningly integral to American life. In the shimmering world of surface and show, enough is never enough; there are no limits to hype, no final achievements. Like Ayn Rand’s self-inflated master architect, Howard Roark, Trump would ask again and again: “Who will stop me?”
No one stopped him. Trump’s life has been a marathon of gaudy self-branding, attended by multitudes who, if they know they cannot get to be him, can at last imagine themselves his courtiers. Even his wealth, its magnitude heatedly and knowledgeably contested, matters less to him than the furtherance of his brand. At every step of the way, his self-enchantment proved enchanting to envious and resentful throngs, seeking compensation for what ordinary life lacks, staring into every available screen for images with which to aggrandize themselves. Trump psyched out the workings of an attention-getting culture as he would later psyche out the spectacles that we call “political debates” and “interviews,” cracking journalists’ code, availing himself of their shallowness, waltzing away from truth with aplomb and impunity. Long before Twitter, Trump commandeered spotlights, mastered the art of appearing a big deal, climbing nonstop from one media collaboration to another. His bankruptcies were intermissions. He turned his first failed marriage into a great career move.
To put it more luridly, for almost four decades Trump has been composing a snuff film to his greater glory—a snuff film proving that he is the winner. We would not know the name Donald Trump, there would be no Trump campaign, there would be no name recognition, were it not for his decades of media-channeled bravado, courtesy of a voracious culture industry for which anything—anything—goes, so long as it’s gaudy (or as the industry puts it, as long as it collects eyeballs and eardrums).
We are talking about a trajectory is now well into its fourth decade—from the show biz of midtown Manhattan real estate through the tabloid press he conquered in the ‘80s, through his best-selling books, through his hotel and casino branding in the ‘90s, through talk radio and reality TV and the birther fraud in more recent years, into Twitter barrages to 12.8 million followers, and finally, gliding down the phony gold escalator to the Republican nomination in an America where an oligarch presiding over mountains of debt can make a case that he is the triumphal avatar of losers. Trump got his name up in lights by slapping it onto his towers whether he owned them or, increasingly, did not. His name was his product.
And so into politics—that is, a tsunami of attention-getting that earned this man almost $2 billion in free media from June 2015 through February 2016 alone, more at that point than all other candidates, Republican and Democratic, put together. In a crowded Republican field without, it must be said, any sufficiently smooth or renowned or gaudy a rival, he broke through. When he had completed (at least for a while) his hostile takeover of a political party so bankrupt as to throw itself at his feet, one Trump crony bragged that Trump “spent the least amount of money of any of the competitive primary contenders that he beat so badly.”
There is no such phenomenon as Donald Trump without the making and mass-marketing of his brand—including, not least, his air of impunity. As he told an early biographer, Michael D’Antonio: “I never had a failure, because I always turned a failure into a success.” That allure of impunity renders scandal and deception just so much fuel for his fire. In the words of longtime Trump chronicler Wayne Barrett, when Trump left his first wife, Ivana, for the woman who would become his second, Marla, “Trump told Newsweek the scandal was ‘great for business,’ and pushed Marla to seize on the opportunities it presented, including half a million she got to pose in ‘No Excuses’ jeans.”
The allure of impunity was such that, in 2004, Trump tried to trademark his Apprentice slogan “You’re fired.” This he could not arrange, but as it turned out, he didn’t need any legal protection. He was already a brand for a heady brew of bombast and babes. His persona, however unappealing to many, spoke—and continues to speak—resoundingly to a public enamored of American-style winners and craving a big mouth to voice their wounded masculinity, their embattled white supremacy, their weariness with log-jammed democracy, and their resentment of the educated know-it-alls in league with Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, fat women, and the trembling disabled. They want a boss to muscle things into order and wall out the devils who account for the suffering of the innocent. In September, a survey conducted by Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts, found that the trait that correlated most highly with Trump support was—authoritarianism.
Trump is, then, the co-creation of a mythmaking apparatus that, taken to its present extreme, endangers civil decency and democracy. It is not going too far to say that he is the candidate who thinks he can get away with anything, and that this is part of his appeal. Thus, in January, his remark in Sioux City, Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
TRUMP’S CAREER IN FULL cavort before the funhouse mirror that surrounds America’s moronic inferno (to borrow Saul Bellow’s phrase) unfolded under the sign of three interlocked slogans: 1. bragging pays; 2. so does nastiness; 3. a lot of people love both. Think about Trump’s “You’re fired.” Think about Simon Cowell in American Idol. Through all the stations of his media-soaked career, Trump worked variants of the malevolent magic whereby he swallowed up losers and spat out the pits, all to his greater glory.
• The tabloids. Through the ‘80s, as he acquired buildings and women, and even more, the reputation for them, the tabloids adored him. He planted stories. As Politico has documented, Trump would call up the News’s gossip columnist “to brag about the model he had been with the night before or get into some silly spat and leak an angry letter.” The News’s top editor in 1992-93, when his marriage to Ivana was crashing and burning, Lou Colasuonno, said Trump was “like a walking, talking tabloid editor’s dream. He was fun. He was entertaining. He sold papers for us—no question. That’s a fact.” Trump could pipe a purported quote from Marla Maples onto the front page of the New York Post: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had”—preceded, in smaller type, by: “Marla boasts to her pals about Donald.” Right. Frank DiGiacomo, employed by the New York Post’s all-gossip Page Six, said: “You’d see stories we did that would show up reported out in the quote-unquote legitimate press.” Trump was becoming national catnip. “He was radiating this almost cartoonish idea of wealth and celebrity and status,” DiGiacomo added. “He honed a very simple, easily disseminated message. It’s not that different from what it is now: I embody success. I’m a winner.”
Broadcast personality Howard Stern, left, speaks with casino owner and possible presidential candidate Donald Trump at a party given by the New York Post, Wednesday, February 9, 2000, in New York.
• The best-sellers. In 1987, Trump parlayed his spectacular reputation into a book, The Art of the Deal, which stayed on top of The New York Times’s best-seller list for 13 weeks, ran up 48 weeks total on the list, and sold something like a million copies all told. The book was ghostwritten by the magazine writer Tony Schwartz, who confessed to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer this year, “I put lipstick on a pig. I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” If he were writing The Art of the Deal today, Schwartz said, he would call it The Sociopath. Their partnership began when Schwartz wrote critically about Trump in New York magazine. Trump sent him a fan letter. “He was obsessed with publicity,” Schwartz said, “and he didn’t care what you wrote.” Trump’s self-booster franchise was good for an ongoing miniseries of lesser best-sellers.
• Howard Stern. In the ‘90s, deep in financial trouble, Trump fastened upon radio loudmouth Howard Stern for magnification. Stern made him a supporting character, a foil. Oh, those boys! It was a match made in a locker room in hell. Stern had the bigger reach at the time—he went national—so Trump had to suck up Stern’s humiliations. Describing the dynamic in Politico, Virginia Heffernan was subtly on the money in noting that Trump’s mastery of the media is partly due to his management of his own sado-masochism:
To keep Douchebag Donald in character, Stern blows no end of noxious smoke, pushing Trump to preen pathetically and act the baller. But Trump never tells him off. Instead, he seems cravenly eager to please Stern, self-styled King of all Media, whose unlikely charisma—unceasingly onanistic and anhedonic, using others only to spark his disgust or his libido—seemed infinitely bankable at the time.
• Reality TV. At the new century dawned, Trump was on the brink of national stardom, toward which end there was still no substitute for broadcast television. From Trump as Stern sidekick to Trump as swaggering reality show impresario was not a vast stretch. The British impresario Mark Burnett, fresh from his success as the helmsman of Survivor, was plainly, like Trump, fascinated by Social Darwinist fantasies in which losers get tossed overboard. Trump would be the star who did the tossing. Now, his character did not have to bow and scrape; he was in charge. In 2003-04, The Apprentice was a big hit for NBC, averaging 21 million viewers per week. There followed, less lucratively, Celebrity Apprentice. Trump was now national.
• The birther junket. Precisely because Trump was now a certified national star, his embrace of the spurious, indeed ridiculous claim that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya made news. (Did no journalist who channeled Trump’s lunatic assertion ever think to ask why a young woman with access to excellent American hospitals in Hawaii would have decided to travel to a poor country to give birth, a country with a far worse rate of infant mortality, and one which she had never before set foot in?) By now, anything Trump said was newsworthy by virtue of the fact that he said it. He was piggybacking on an uproar of racist inspiration that he didn’t have to go to the trouble of launching. In fact, the so-called birther movement was spawned in 2008 by a litigious but not-famous-enough Southern California dentist named Orly Taitz. By 2009, that discerning TV gatekeeper Bill O’Reilly was calling her “a nut.” The birther movement found itself leaderless. Trump seized the opportunity to jump to the head of the crazy parade. Whether he understood at the time that this would ingratiate him with white supremacists who were horrified by the ascendancy of Barack Obama is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he intuited that the delusional Obama-haters would be a political base he could later use.
• The campaign itself. Much has been written, including by this writer, about Trump’s ability, once the primary season began in 2015, to bask in the spotlight, to usurp campaign space, to exploit the absurd formalities of false equivalency, to run rings around journalists, to inflame his crowds, to fabricate facts, to scamper away from doubts. It may turn out that Trump’s greatest gift to job creation is what he accomplished for fact-checking.
The sheer idiocy of treating Donald Trump as if he were a normal political candidate who spoke in defensible sentences eventually became an embarrassment. What seems clear is that once Trump had nailed down the nomination, many honest and decent journalists in mainstream media sat themselves down for a needed soul-searching. For months they had dutifully trudged along applying to a huckster what the sociologist Gaye Tuchman once called the “strategic ritual” of objectivity, even as Trump had not cared a whit when caught out in falsehoods, delusions, and self-contradictions—and most alarmingly, his legions of followers did not seem to care either.
Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona.
Someday, this journalistic turning point of late spring 2016 will repay extensive analysis. My first-draft judgment at the time was that the better quarters of journalism were jolted by journalistic remorse. We saw fine work from The Washington Post’s squadron of investigative reporters (said to number 25); by CNN’s Jake Tapper refusing to let Trump off the hook about the purportedly prejudicial “Mexicanness” of Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel; by a number of reporters at The New York Times, and the editors’ decision to run the word “lie” in a Trump headline (admittedly a news analysis, not a news piece, to use a Times distinction that means little or nothing to readers); the appearance of factual corrections in the crawls that ran at the bottom of the TV screen; the emergence, also at the Times, of locutions like “despite no evidence to support the claim.” There remained vast swathes of Trump background that never took off in the mainstream—for example, reporting on Trump’s history of friendly relations with organized crime, pioneered by Wayne Barrett and David Cay Johnston; but his tax dodges and misogyny did break through, especially when, in the latter case, there was a smoking video from Access Hollywood to attest to it.
By this time, of course, Trump had become the front man for the most vicious, racist, nativist, logic-starved, violence-inciting and otherwise deplorable and demagogic political campaign within memory.
BUT LET ME STAY for a moment with the uncanny depth of what journalism failed to grasp about Donald Trump, for it also goes to a systemic incapacity. Tony Schwartz, Trump’s onetime ghostwriter, told Jane Mayer: “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”
Another way of saying this is that Trump has perfected the dark arts of bullshit. Trump did not invent them. In this century, these propagandistic arts had already seen trial runs by George W. Bush and by the Swift Boat Veterans for Peace that caught John Kerry’s 2004 campaign in the headlights. The term bullshit must break out from behind euphemisms for reasons delicately and precisely explored by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt:
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: He is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
Donald Trump, according to Tony Schwartz, liked the term “truthful hyperbole.”
Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to readers of The Art of the Deal: “I play to people’s fantasies. … People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
But Trump, the toxic bullshitter, would have gone nowhere absent the whole cultural welter of nihilistic attention-getting enterprises that we helplessly speak of as “the media.” When this period is recalled by historians, the golden epigraph will belong not to Trump himself but to CBS Chairman of the Board, President, and CEO Les Moonves, who spoke in February of the advertising cornucopia spilling down upon the network:
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the presidential race.
Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb throwing,” and he hopes it continues. …
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves.
Accuracy requires one additional observation: The broadcast stations essential to the prosperity of the network are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission gratis. According to the Federal Communications Act of 1934, still the charter of American broadcasting, the airwaves are leased to commercial interests to operate “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”
STUDENTS OF CHRISTIAN ESCHATOLOGY will already be familiar with Trump’s lifelong odyssey through the manifold stations of media, commanding attention to a self that is so fundamentally self-enclosed, so self-referential, as to inspire an analogue to The Rapture, as sketched in the prophecy (I Thessalonians 4:16-17) that,
the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
The media, “social” and otherwise, are the connective tissue of the human universe as we have come to know it. They lay claim to being “the Lord in the air.” They issue certificates of significance. As much as possible, they decree wherein virtue lies. They are everywhere, declaring: So will the empty suits be filled and the crooked no longer need to be made straight, for fraud and brutality shall live in the annals of hell forever.