An insider’s view of the first Trump campaign (from Michael Cohen’s Disloyal)
“What about self-funding the campaign,” Trump said to me one afternoon.
I knew there was no way he was going to spend his own money on politics. He was far too cheap, to begin with, and he was far less liquid than was understood by outsiders, but he appeared to be seriously contemplating the idea.
“I don’t want to take money from a super PAC,” Trump said. “A billionaire can’t ask people for five bucks. Maybe I’ll self-fund the primary but do it cheap. I don’t need to spend a lot of money because we’ll get all the free press we want.”
Please pause over that final sentence and read it again. And again. And again. Because if you want to understand how Donald J. Trump became president, you have to grasp the essential fact that by far the most important element wasn’t nationalism, or populism, or racism, or religion, or the rise of white supremacy, or strongman authoritarianism. It wasn’t Russia, or lying, or James Comey, though all of those forces were hugely influential. It wasn’t Hillary Clinton, though heaven knows she did all she could to lose the election.
No. The biggest influence by far—by a country mile—was the media. Donald Trump’s presidency is a product of the free press. Not free as in freedom of expression, I mean free as unpaid for. Rallies broadcast live, tweets, press conferences, idiotic interviews, 24-7 wall-to-wall coverage, all without spending a penny. The free press gave America Trump. Right, left, moderate, tabloid, broadsheet, television, radio, Internet, Facebook—that is who elected Trump and might well elect him again.
The underlying reasons were both obvious and hard to discern, and it continues to amaze me that this phenomenon isn’t a central part of the conversation about the current plight of the United States of America.
Start with the proposition that Trump was great for ratings. If you’re a right-wing AM radio commentator, or a lefty Brooklyn political podcaster, you were making bank talking about Trump. It’s like a car crash, with people unable to avert their gaze. The Boss knew this and he knew how to exploit the greed and venality of journalists because he was (and is) an expert on the subjects. But there was something deeper and more primal in the way the media obsessed over Trump, as I did. Trump was a great story. He was chaos all the time. By five a.m. every day, he’d created the news cycle with his stubby fingers sending out bile-flecked tweets attacking anyone or everyone. In this way, as in so many others, he was the absolute opposite of Obama. Instead of No Drama, it was Drama All the Time.
The thing that astounded me, and still does to this day, was that the media didn’t see that they were being played for suckers. They didn’t realize the damage they were inflicting on the country by following Trump around like supplicants. What Trump did was transparent, once you identified it, and this remained a central fact of the campaign. If interest in Trump was waning, even just a little bit, he’d yank the chain of the media with an insult or racist slur or reactionary outrage—and there would be CNN and the Times and Fox News dutifully eating out of his hands. Like so much about Trump, if it weren’t tragic, you’d laugh—or cry.
(Bolded highlighting is mine)
But one still has to factor in the people who actually love the car crash and see in it a promise that the “system” itself will be blown up to the benefit of the “ordinary folks”.
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