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Trump’s Media Empire Takes Shape

The Republican nominee is losing the race, but he’s building his brand.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Rapidly sinking in the polls and careening from blunder to blunder, Donald Trump has ordered the second major shake-up of his staff in three months. Paul Manafort, who was named campaign chairman in the previous shake-up, has failed in his attempts to domesticate Trump and help him pivot to a centrist message, and the Republican nominee has now brought in Steve Bannon, chairman of the conservative website Breitbart. By all reports, Bannon wants to “let Trump be Trump”—to rile up the right-wing base with incendiary rhetoric and launch vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton.

The consensus view among political observers—including, and perhaps especially, on the right—is that Trump’s dumpster-fire campaign has become a wildfire. “Trump Has Decided To Live in Breitbart’s Alternative Reality,” announced the conservative Weekly Standard. On CNN, former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro called Trump a “turd tornado.” And Noah Rothman notes in Commentary, the flagship journal of neo-conservatism, “By bringing on Breitbart’s head, any illusion of distance between the Trump campaign and its most unwaveringly supportive blog is now gone. The Trump campaign will be said, rightly, to have embraced the voice of the racially transgressive ‘alt-right’ and self-identified ‘white nationalists.’”

But if the Trump campaign is an epic disaster, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In fact, by cementing ties with Breitbart and seeking advice from disgraced former Fox News head Roger Ailes, Trump has sent his strongest signal yet that long-held suspicions about his media-mogul aspirations are true. He’s using the election to develop an intensely loyal audience that occupies a special niche: those who think Fox News is too mainstream. Who better to help him cash in on such an effort than Bannon and Ailes?

Former Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer tweeted:

CNN’s Brian Stelter had a similar thought:

This is not pure speculation. Two months ago, Vanity Fair reported that Trump is...

...considering creating his own media business, built on the audience that has supported him thus far in his bid to become the next president of the United States. According to several people briefed on the discussions, the presumptive Republican nominee is examining the opportunity presented by the “audience” currently supporting him. He has also discussed the possibility of launching a “mini-media conglomerate” outside of his existing TV-production business, Trump Productions LLC.

A report in yesterday’s New York Times supports the idea that the closer ties with Bannon might be part of a plan to create a “mini-media conglomerate.” According to the Times:

In recent months, Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have quietly explored becoming involved with a media holding, either by investing in one or by taking one over, according to a person close to Mr. Trump who was briefed on those discussions.

At a minimum, the campaign’s homestretch offers Mr. Trump, who has begun to limit his national media appearances to conservative outlets, an opportunity to build his audience and steer his followers toward the combative Breitbart site.

Running an entire presidential campaign as an advertising stunt to launch a “mini-media conglomerate” might seem like a strange act, but it’s the logical culmination of the fusion between entertainment and politics within the Republican Party since at least the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger both proved that an actor’s fame and persona could win elections. It wasn’t just that Reagan and Schwarzenegger were veteran performers, but also that they could shape political campaigns to resemble Hollywood narratives rather than traditional policy debates. Reagan’s winning “Morning in America” campaign owed more to its ability to evoke Steven Spielberg-style nostalgia than to conservative ideology. Similarly, Schwarzenegger played to perfection the role of the can-do outsider familiar from films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

It was Fox News that demonstrated how profitable it could be to create narratives that appealed to the Republican base. With the rise of Fox in 2000s, there emerged an entire cohort of politicians whose presidential campaigns seemed to exist merely to get them an audience for their speeches, TV appearances, and books. In the past, has-been politicians had to become lobbyists or find a sinecure in a think tank. Fox News created a new career path where politicians could continue running for president and use the attendant publicity and TV appearances to rake in the dough. This explains the ever widening Republican field that included the likes of Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich. Sarah Palin proved that losing an election could lead to lucrative TV contracts.

Trump is the logical culmination of this trend. The problem for the Republican Party is that the very antics that earn good ratings—ranting about Mexican “rapists” or insulting a fallen soldier’s parents—are poison in terms of appealing to moderate voters. That’s why Trump is simultaneously dominating the headlines and plummeting in the polls. If he keeps it up, he’ll likely lose in a landslide in November. That would be a down-ballot disaster for the GOP, but hardly a personal disaster for Trump.

In 2010, conservative intellectual David Frum told ABC News, Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.” Frum was speaking from what already seems a happier and more innocent time. Fox News was niche, but at least it was a cable network with millions of viewers. Now the Republican Party is in the hands of a much smaller and more narrowly focused outlet, one that appeals not just to the right but the alt-right. Thanks to Trump, Republicans are discovering that Breitbart doesn’t work for them, they work for Breitbart. And after November, many Republicans may find that they work for Trump TV.