Which is why Trump will not try to lead some kind of political movement or enterprise that has any goal beyond his own aggrandizement. He’d be perfectly happy to be a Republican kingmaker, but he will probably find his primary purpose in trying to become the king of an existing empire: the conservative grift machine.
That’s why the idea of him starting a TV network seems compelling, both to observers and Trump himself (he knows more about TV than anyone, just ask him). As Mike Allen of Axios reports, “Trump has told friends he wants to start a digital media company to clobber Fox News.”
Miffed because Fox’s commitment to lickspittlery has faltered at times, especially when the network’s decision desk called Arizona for Joe Biden, Trump is supposedly out for revenge. “He plans to wreck Fox. No doubt about it,” said one of Allen’s sources.
Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of another Republican politician with a loyal cadre of followers and a unique ability to command media attention: Sarah Palin.
While Donald Trump turned his celebrity into a political career, Palin tried to turn her political renown into a career as a celebrity, but it didn’t go quite as planned. After resigning midway through her term as governor of Alaska (with one of the most remarkable speeches in the history of political rhetoric), Palin embarked on an ill-fated quest to become a media star.
It included a stint as a Fox contributor (Roger Ailes eventually fired her for being terrible at it); the Sarah Palin Channel (an online TV-esque enterprise you could get for $9.95 a month); and “Amazing America With Sarah Palin” (a show on the Sportsman Channel, sadly no longer on the air).
There is no doubt that Trump has things Palin lacks; his base is larger, and as an ex-president he has a wider array of opportunities at his disposal. But Palin’s experience shows that the crowds that cheer you today can grow smaller tomorrow, if you’re just one more political loser begging for attention.
As for Trump starting his own cable TV network, it would be a practical and financial challenge he’s probably not up to, though he could try to take over a smaller network such as the lunatic conspiracy-mongering One America News.
But he’ll have a hard time taking down Fox. They have all the regular viewers, and they’ll have new purpose as a 24-hour-a-day cannon of anger and fear pointed at the Biden administration. Fox will still be the place where the popular hosts are and all the Republican politicians come to speak to their constituents.
Nevertheless, starting some kind of media enterprise — even if it’s a subscription website — would be one logical way for Trump to tap into the thriving ecosystem of scammers and grifters who prey upon the millions of gullible and excitable Republicans just waiting to turn over their money to stop the libs from destroying our country.
There’s a long history there, in which lists of right-wing marks — or excuse me, committed citizens — have been milked for contributions and donations and sales, even as most of their dollars go into the pockets of consultants. Trump is already tapping into it; he’s soliciting contributions for a new PAC called “Save America,” whose mission is to keep Democrats from stealing the election; in fact, it looks like much of the money will go to, you guessed it, Donald Trump. He’s already got an enormous list of his supporters from his two campaigns; you can bet he’ll be squeezing them for every dollar he can.
And he needs the money. Not only is he on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans that are coming due soon, his brand has taken a potentially fatal hit. It will be far more difficult to convince foreign developers to put the Trump name on their buildings and pay him millions in licensing fees. The steady stream of people seeking his favor by booking rooms and events at his properties will dry up. What’s the point of holding your banquet at a hotel belonging to a disgraced ex-president who can’t do you any government favors? The Trump Organization could be facing real trouble.
Which is why Trump could turn back to what he knows: the small-time scams and hustles that sustained him for so many years. A year from now there could be any number of ways you can give Trump your money. How about a new Trump University if you feel the need to dispose of your life savings?
But politics will, of course, be part of the pitch, in a way it didn’t used to be for him. And that’s where things could get tricky. Trump spent decades constructing a myth of wealth and success that he convinced people they could get a piece of, if only they paid him. But what will he be selling after he leaves the White House?
He’ll retain plenty of influence within the Republican Party, and use it to convince the media to keep paying attention to him. But how do you turn that into money?
I can’t say I know. But I’m sure Trump will think of something.