Through Trump’s presidency, it was often noted that he had a unique ability to command the nation’s attention, even more so than previous presidents. He was a constant presence in our consciousness, every hour and every minute, forcing himself in front of our eyes with a barrage of tweets, outrageous comments and never-ending controversies.
But his current travails demonstrate how much Trump was always dependent on the mainstream media he both hated and sought the approval of. Like a tree falling in the forest, Trump barely makes a sound unless those supposedly stodgy legacy outlets are there to amplify him.
Keep in mind that the word “media” is the plural of “medium,” as in something that exists between, in this case between the politician and his audience of voters. And despite all the contempt Republican politicians heap on the media and all their attempts to create alternative sources of information, they still need those media. Desperately.
But we in the MSM no longer need Trump, at least not in the way we used to. We’re sort of like the alcoholics who reject the 12-step method’s insistence on abstinence to become moderate drinkers. We don’t need our hit of Trump every day but, from time to time, we can partake a bit and be fine (by discussing Trump, I’m doing it right now).
Trump could speak to his supporters there, but much more important, that was where he could speak to journalists, who would then amplify his thoughts and words to their own audiences. It made him the center of a conversation that crossed ideological lines: Whoever you were and whatever your perspective on politics, you knew what he was thinking.
And now you don’t, at least not in a day-by-day way. While some of Trump’s superfans may have been checking his blog regularly, the things that happened there seldom penetrated into the wider political discussion. Our national political debates are proceeding along just fine without him.
And while he may try to come up with some new platform to pull people in (and probably to make some money), it won’t give him what he’s after either, because reporters won’t feel the need to be tapped into it.
That isn’t to say that Trump’s influence within the Republican Party has been much diminished. GOP candidates still seek his endorsement, those who reject him are purged, and the entire party continues to be in thrall to Trumpism’s pathologies and delusions. His centrality to the party may only increase as the 2024 presidential campaign begins.
But to extend his reach beyond those who are already devoted to him, he needs The Post and the New York Times and CNN and all the other mainstream outlets. It’s their validation he craves. Their constant attention would communicate that no one is more important than him and his every utterance deserves lengthy examination.
The smarter Republicans who want to run for president in 2024 understand this, too. While they will go into exclusively right-wing spaces to begin cultivating support, to become real contenders, they will need to become a presence on media outlets that speak to broader audiences.
None of them will be able to fascinate the media the way Trump did in 2015 and 2016 — he was such a disturbingly compelling candidate that cable networks would broadcast rally after rally — but neither can any of them pretend that they can circumvent that media and be successful.
Certain things can thrive in alternative media spaces without capturing the notice of the legacy media — conspiracy theories, quack cures, esoteric affinity communities, the occasional terrorist plot — but presidential politics is not among them.
As a young man, Trump was desperate to make his name in Manhattan, where all the big shots were. He forced his way in with brashness and lies, becoming a ubiquitous presence even if he never got the acceptance he craved. Yet, today, he can’t even set foot in New York, despite the fact that a few buildings there still bear his name.
His status in the media is not too different: People still talk about him there and he retains some influence, but it’s not really his place anymore. And it must be killing him.