Trump is flailing. He badly trails the flawed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in national and state polls after a series of self-inflicted political wounds. Since staging a show of division and incompetence at his nominating convention in Cleveland, Trump has attacked the parents of a war hero, urged Russia to steal U.S. secrets from Clinton’s state department email, baselessly called the U.S. presidential election “rigged,” and ominously suggested that gun-rights activists might need to take the election in their own hands.
I’m probably forgetting something. It’s hard to keep up with Trump’s slow suicide.
This is no defense of my industry, which is undergoing major disruptions of its decades-old business model, ethical boundaries, and social impact. Often placing ratings and clicks above public service, media executives view Trump more as a source of revenue than a news source. CBS chairman Les Moonves said of Trump’s candidacy in February, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.” An analysis in March concluded that Trump had already received more than $2 billion worth of media attention. He has relied on such exposure—and not micro-targeting or television advertising—to an unprecedented degree.
Driven by a number of factors—including a lack of courage, a lack of resources, and institutional laziness—the media often lets Trump skate when he exaggerates and lies. One example: Trump frequently tells TV interviewers that he opposed the war in Iraq, which he did not, and yet few journalists correct him in real time.
Trump is biting the hand the fed his ego. In Trump Revealed, a biography of the celebrity candidate, a team of Washington Post reporters described Trump, after a series of interviews, as frustrating, naïve, wise, and “forever on the make.”
The man who would be president rose from his tall, thickly cushioned leather desk chair, buttoned his suit jacket and waved his visitors to follow along: “Come on, boys, I have something to show you.” He ushered us from his lushly carpeted office in Trump Tower, with its breathtaking view of Central Park and the majestic Plaza Hotel, immediately across the hall to a windowless room, not five steps away.
“I just discovered this,” he said, pointing at the conference table that took up most of the room. He swept his arm over the table, beckoning us to inspect. Every inch of the table’s surface was filled with stacks of magazines. “All from the last four months,” he said, and on every cover of every magazine, there he was, Donald J. Trump, smiling or waving or scowling or pouting, but always him.
“Cover of Time, three times in four months,” he said. “No one ever before. It’s amazing.” There he was on the New York Times Magazine, and on Esquire and on Rolling Stone and on and on, the man who was about to be nominated as the Republican candidate for president, his success (or his notoriety) emblazoned on magazine after magazine. He was very much impressed.
Being the outrageous focus of attention is all Trump knows. His reality show shtick worked in the primary season, appealing to voters desperate for change and strength. But as he gets closer to the presidency, a broader electorate is deciding how much risk Trump’s vulgarity, vapidity, and vexing disregard for the truth are worth.
When his grossly inflated self-image is undercut by reality, he tries more of his insane same. More provocation. More exaggeration. More extremism. A fairy tale wrapped in hyperbole and covered in lies, this fragile man who insists on being called “Mr. Trump” is spiraling downward like an addict reaching for a dirty needle. It may be his last, but he can’t live without it.