“The public is even more fond of entertainment than of information.” – William Randolph Hearst
Back in the halcyon days of mid-October when everyone on the planet except for Trump supporters thought that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the 45th president of the United States, I told a group of corporate executives in Tokyo that one should never underestimate the persuasive power of this rogue billionaire. The business audience to a person was a Trump hater at the level of veins-about-to-burst. No one could imagine the United States losing its collective mind over a coarse, misogynistic, megalomaniacal, narcissistic political neophyte (and that’s a nice description).
We wrapped up our panel discussion with a question about what Trump’s plans would be after he lost the election. I said, “Look out for Trump TV,” as he will create his own alternative media network to challenge establishment press. I predicted that Trump’s brand would be bigger than ever and that he would be a formidable shadow president to Clinton. A fellow panelist predicted a Clinton landslide and a Trump humiliation on Election Day.
Everyone in the room seemed to wish that this thing were over so that the Clintons could move back into the White House they had vacated in 2001. What this specialized class of elite intellectuals failed to grasp was that the U.S. electorate was yearning for a politically incorrect elite media hater who could say things that so many were thinking but felt they couldn’t in the liberal progressive environment of the Obama years.
Hillary Clinton’s nomination was doomed in those dog days of August. She embraced Michelle and Barack Obama and sealed her fate with a continuation of Obama policies on free trade, immigration, diversity and inclusion, gun control, and abortion rights. She partied with Hollywood celebrities and hobnobbed with the East Hampton set. Clinton dominated the money race over Trump by a ratio of 2 to 1. While Trump raised $280 million from small donors of $200 or less and contributed $66 million of his own money, Clinton’s $1.2 billion in private contributions and super-PACs paid for mostly television advertising and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. Such methods were conventional futility in a season of anger at the establishment, whether right or left. The people’s candidate won, asinine though he may be. He was deeply flawed, as was Hillary Clinton, but Trump wasn’t trying to be anything but himself. He was one of us. Hillary Clinton was one of them, which meant that she would not have our back—she would have the back of her donors or Beyoncé and Jay Z.
Now as president, Trump’s antics, like his “fake news” shoutouts in his first presidential news conference, are just reflective of where we sit in the age of post-truth. Facebook mouse-click intellectuals continue to express their outrage at every Trump utterance, thinking that a sustained wave of political protest will oust the nightmare administration. But does anyone think that pink pussycat hats for women’s rights across the United States (a direct response to Trump’s “grab them by the p***y” remarks) are a sustainable means to counter a misogynist commander-in-chief? They may make a lot of anti-Trump people feel united in their disgust, but hatred and anger at one target alone does not an effective opposition movement make.
If anything, Trump haters might consider taking a page from Trump’s political playbook to challenge the news media system that largely failed the entire American electorate. It wasn’t so much left versus right broadcast and print media, but a media that discounted the legitimacy of Trump’s campaign while profiting greatly from his celebrity and entertainment power. He was cast as a reality TV star playing his most prominent character of his career: a fake presidential candidate. Trump was treated with kid gloves by media advertisers who earned billions from all the chatter and noise about Trump. In February 2016 alone, Trump’s campaign benefited from $400 million in free media coverage (such as news reports, commentary and opinion about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and social media)—an amount equal to what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign.
When Trump started to take out his GOP competition one by one and win political primaries, some news outlets began to reconsider the media hall pass that gave Trump free reign to say whatever he wanted in the name of newsworthiness. By summer 2016, mainstream media had all but turned its back on Trump’s candidacy. He was no longer a joke that made money. Now he must be investigated. He did not pay taxes for nearly 20 years revealed the newspaper of record New York Times. He boasted about grabbing women by their private parts or barging into beauty pageant dressing rooms. He answered to nobody. The press went from bemused onlookers to bitter rivals. Just one week into his presidential administration, Trump’s chief political strategist Steve Bannon is calling mainstream media the opposition party: “They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
The stakes have never been higher for a political communication environment. One of these institutions will prevail. Trump, with his 22.5 million Twitter followers, is betting that the mainstream (i.e., “lamestream”) media outlets that he calls illegitimate will lose all credibility beyond his supporters who already share his disdain to the level of the mass man or woman on the street, what Walter Lippmann referred to in 1922 as “the bewildered herd” who need authoritarian guidance. If Trump can shift the image of the American press from just tolerable to propaganda media, then he will prevail with his direct line of communication to the people. He may not win the Information War, but expect the battles to preoccupy the most media obsessed occupant of the White House in American history.
Nancy Snow is editor of Propaganda and American Democracy (LSU Press, 2014) and author/editor/coeditor of ten other books on media and politics, including Japan’s Information War. She is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies and a Tokyo-based consultant on media and public affairs.