Rumors that Donald Trump has given up on winning the election in favor of a media plan B make sense, but its been tried before with disappointing results
After a long, hot and sorry-looking summer it may look like the game is up for Donald Trumps presidential ambitions. But thats only if you believe the tycoon-turned-presidential candidate is actually running to win the White House.
Trumps poll numbers have slipped as the American election departs the local primary circus and enters the national campaign. Trumps trademark combination of bombast and braggadocio trounced his Republican opposition, and still draws crowds at rallies, but the polls suggest Trump has alienated the wider electorate he needs to win the presidency.
And according to an increasingly popular theory in media circles, thats exactly how he wants it. Trump, so the hypothesis goes, has given up on winning the presidential race and is now simply priming the pump for an upcoming media venture for the alt-right demographic, as the Trump-loving alternative to mainstream conservatism is now known. Fox News is old hat say hello to 24/7 Trump TV.
Ever since Trump declared he was running for president, skeptics have sensed this was all a vanity campaign aimed at building his brand. The recent reshuffle of Team Trump has only fuelled speculation: Roger Ailes, Fox Newss disgraced former chairman, is now advising Trump while he fights off accusations of serial sexual harassment (charges Ailes vehemently denies). And earlier this month, Trump appointed Steve Bannon, Goldman Sachs banker turned film-maker and former chairman of the self-identified alt-right Breitbart News website, as his campaign CEO alongside veteran pollster Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager.
The media certainly thinks its spotted the upcoming twist. What if Trump and Breitbart could team up, raise some money from outside investors, and bring aboard some of the television executives who built Fox News? asked the New Yorker last week. Vanity Fair recently reported Trump is looking to monetize his audience through a possible mini-media conglomerate. The New York Times reported this month that Trump and his son-in-law, New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner, have been mulling over a media holding. CNNs chief media watcher Brian Stelter recently reported: What he might wanna do is launch a new television channel, or launch a new giant website, a new subscription service, he might be thinking about a media enterprise.
I think hes definitely working to cement his brand with an audience, said NPR media reporter David Folkenflik.
Theres certainly room out there for a Trump media brand. As Fox News expert and New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman told the Guardian recently, the landscape is shifting in rightwing media thanks to Ailess fall and Trumps rise. Fox was this amazing unifier of all the strands of conservatism together [Now] its kind of a Lord of the Flies situation where everyones trying to kill each other.
As Trumps dysfunctional, bare-bones campaign continues to come up short in the polls, a media plan B makes sense. His alt-right base is too small to win an election, but big enough to make him some money afterward.
But this is a plan that has been tried before, and with less than impressive results.
The most obvious forerunner was Sarah Palin, seen by many as Trump 1.0. Here was another rightwing outsider who, after the 2012 election, attempted to cash in on her stardom with the Sarah Palin Channel, a digital network run with the web-based TV company TAPP.
Palin charged $10 per month to ride the straight-talk express, with sub-channels including New Life TV recharge your relationships and grow closer to God Live with Joan Lunden a vibrant community for womens wellness and breast cancer patients and survivors and K-Love TV Christian Rock, Inspiration, and Family Values.
The lineup failed to find an audience and by 2014 the Sarah Palin Channel was racking up a mere 36,000 views a month, considerably less than many gardening blogs. The URL now leads to SarahPAC.com, the home of her political action committee that raises money for conservative candidates.
Not far behind Palins debacle, and also produced by TAPP, was The Herman Cain Channel launched by another Republican presidential wannabe who briefly rose to national prominence. CainTV died in 2013 but then came back as a low-grade news blog framed by ads plugging Cains books and radio shows. CainTV delivers it all in an Informed, Inspirational, and INtertaining way, goes its slogan. It too has failed to evolve into the conglomerate the former pizza magnate had likely envisioned.
Finally, and perhaps most ominously for Trump, theres the demise of conservative radio and TV star Glenn Becks post-Fox News venture, The Blaze. If anyone was likely to pull off a digital media empire targeting the audience of (relatively) young, pissed-off, conspiratorial conservatives, it should have been Beck.
The former Fox host wanted to engineer a fresh news channel from digital beginnings, a scrappy upstart with enough populist appeal to challenge the mighty Fox brand with none of the legacy costs of mainstream media. What he produced was significantly less than that, and its been bleeding money and staff for years. The Blaze laid off 40 employees in April, as traffic and advertising revenue continued to wither away.
The legacy of new media ventures further to the left is equally awful: onetime Democratic presidential candidate and vice-president Al Gores CurrentTV failed spectacularly, burning money to attract an audience it could neither find nor hold. It was taken over and rebranded by the deep pocketed Al Jazeera network in 2013, but after three very expensive years Al Jazeera America closed in April.
Trump would certainly argue he could do better. But building a media empire isnt as easy as burning down a political campaign. It requires serious money and a long-term strategy. These are not major turn-ons for the man who brought you 12-months of Trump Steaks and less than a year of Trump-brand water.
You gotta remember that Trump doesnt want to spend a lot of money on this, said Folkenflik. It costs a ton of money. Murdoch had to pay cable providers to put Fox on.
Even if Trump does commit to a more upscale venture, who would have the vision to run it? Ailes seems like an obvious choice until one considers that hes a 76-year-old in legal trouble and visibly poor health; and he wouldnt be able to start until his noncompete agreement with Fox News expires at the end of 2018. Still, even pushing 80, its hard to imagine him mellowing with age. He has scores to settle with James and Lachlan Murdoch, sons of his former mentor and partner Rupert, who were always looking to knock him off his throne.
I think Ailes would love a chance to once more stick it in the eye of the establishment and the Murdoch sons, Folkenflik said. But also, its not just that hes not a young man anymore, its that hes not in good shape. Hes not gonna be the guy in charge.
Meanwhile Bannon, like so many other Trump campaign officials, is in the midst of public and embarrassing scandals, dealing with allegations that he violated Floridas voting laws and reports of domestic abuse.
Still, those charges may not matter to Trump, who is already happily defending and working with Ailes despite his issues. And they certainly dont matter to Trumps base, who tend to dismiss charges against Trump and his campaign as PC thuggery and liberal media bias.
The final decision lies with Trump; he may jump at the chance to make a TV channel in his image, or he may just license his brand and let someone like Bannon or an Ailes-led brains trust take the reins. Trump loyalists like Fox News star Sean Hannity who makes enough money from his radio career to leave his perch at Fox News could possibly sign up to join a new splinter cell. Or maybe Trump will simply complete the marriage between his campaign and Breitbart News and put some money into an alt-right shop thats already doing well.
If the Trumps dont make it to the White House, the family patriarch may indeed start a new media conglomerate. But business history, not least Trumps own business history, suggests a low-risk, low-grade propaganda house rather than a sprawling new cable empire. As his buddy Ailes has no doubt warned him, talk is cheap but news is expensive.