Maybe the wisest bit of cautionary advice I ever heard about the media came from my brother-in-law, Paul, who grew up in rural Virginia. “Just remember, son,” Paul’s Uncle Russell used to tell him, “paper’ll lay down and let you write whatever you want on it.”
I wonder what Uncle Russell would have said about the new social media like Facebook Live and Twitter, which don’t lie down so much as stand up and scream: “Give us your lies and self-deception! We’re here for you!” Whatever you want to believe now, there’s some bogus chart or viral video popping up somewhere to validate it.
Which leads me to the latest innovation in campaign propaganda: Trump Tower TV, which launched this week on Facebook.
Think of it as an unreality show, airing inside an actual reality show, which is airing under the guise of an actual presidential campaign. It’s like one of those Russian nesting dolls, which in Donald Trump’s case may be an especially apt metaphor.
Trump’s feed, streaming live from the “war room” in Trump Tower, is remarkable in that it self-consciously mimics everything about your conventional cable show. There’s lively banter between the hosts, a parade of genial guests who appear to have just dropped in, a platinum blond bomb-throwing commentator with no particular qualifications in anything. There’s breaking coverage of Trump’s evening rally, perfectly timed to make air.
It shows you, basically, how easy it is for any moron with a laptop and a dream to perfectly imitate the cheerful vacuousness of most TV news.
In its content, though, Trump Tower TV is essentially a long and monotonous infomercial. On Trump’s nightly feed, he’s winning the election handily, crushing it in early voting, surging in swing states, humiliating the media and their pollsters. It’s a full-on rout.
The feed isn’t hurting for A-list guests. On the first night, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, showed up, looking vaguely embarrassed and vowing to win a campaign she has zero expectation of winning.
But hey, at least Conway’s going to walk away from this wreck famous and marketable. She was followed on set by poor Sean Spicer, lead strategist for the Republican National Committee, which at this point is a little like saying you’re the chief culinary officer for Chef Boyardee.
Asked to recount his favorite moment of the campaign, Spicer talked about finding a sign from the spin room that somebody left outside.
Oh, man, crazy times.
Spicer seems like a genuinely nice guy and a smart operative, which is why it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him as he writhes through interviews, paying homage to “Mr. Trump” as a businessman and then pivoting wherever possible to how awful Hillary Clinton and the media are.
He’s like a real estate agent trying to sell you a house where an entire family was just brutally murdered. But have you seen the attic? It runs the length of the house!
All of this unfolded, by the way, even as Trump himself seemed to be turning his attention to the world after the election. While Mike Pence tried to save a gasping campaign in Utah, a state in which no viable Republican should ever have to set foot after March, Trump was pausing to promote his hotels in Florida and Washington, D.C.
As New York magazine reported a few weeks ago, Trump’s brand-new, high-end Washington hotel, situated in the old post office near the White House, is already in trouble. It was the only luxury hotel in town that was discounting rooms before the recent IMF meetings, presumably because nobody with that kind of cash or worldliness wanted to give him any business.
There’s a connection here to the new nightly talk show, whether or not it presages a full-blown Trump TV network built to rival Fox News.
Surely Trump understands at this point that he’s been rebranded. After a lifetime of trying to associate his name with ostentatious luxury, excess and aristocracy, in a never-ending quest to rise above his outer-borough roots, he’ll emerge from the campaign having mostly down-market appeal.
His main consumer base from here on out isn’t going to be the status-conscious millionaire who gets a kick out of tasteless gold trimming on everything. It’s going to be the working-class consumer who watched his show and came to his rallies, who aspires to wealth but can never afford a room at the Trump International.
And so Trump Tower TV isn’t only about reaching Trump’s voter; it’s about consolidating his new consumer base, too.
More to the point, though, Trump’s newscast is telling us something about where the rest of us are headed, too. Because if you watch it for a while, you come away understanding that he isn’t attacking the integrity of the process just so he can lose without having to admit defeat.
No, he’s doing something we’ve really never seen a nominee do: deliberately setting out to make it impossible for the next president to govern effectively.
The overarching message of Trump Tower TV, which might otherwise be known as the Wonderland Network, is that Trump can’t possibly lose the election — unless evil Democrats, turncoat Republicans and America-hating reporters succeed in conspiring to overturn the will of the electorate.
In case you don’t think this message is getting through, just read the acid viewer comments floating at the bottom of the screen, like a news crawl, which tell you that the election is rigged and that Clinton is a killer or the devil, or maybe both.
Or you can check out the latest poll from USA Today and Suffolk University, which found that more than four in 10 Trump voters say they won’t accept the legitimacy of the new administration if he loses.
There’s no political reason for a nominee to so enthusiastically validate this kind of absurd paranoia, unless his mindset is that of a spurned soap opera mistress: If I can’t have the presidency, then no one can.
This is a pattern for Trump. He spent the last several years trying to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency, spreading false rumors about his lineage. Now he’s trying to preemptively delegitimize Clinton, by establishing an entire alternative media dedicated to the proposition that she can’t possibly win without some monstrous act of unspecified fraud.
Clinton may or may not have what it takes to respond to unseen crises and build some consensus around an agenda — I have my doubts. But probably no one can do that if a quarter of the electorate is sworn to resist some imaginary usurpation of power.
What Trump is doing now is unpatriotic, and it’s dangerous.
You have to wonder what people like Conway and Spicer make of this. You’d like to think they’re up at night, wondering if so vocally abetting this effort to undermine democracy is really what they came here to do.
I think I know what Uncle Russell might make of it. At least paper had the decency to fold.