Donald Trump is a master of self-promotion. He honed his skills for decades in the real estate business and today makes a considerable portion of his income by licensing his name to various ventures. As Mark Cuban has observed, however, Trump’s branding outside the real estate business has been far less successful. The Trump-branded Republican Party may be about to learn this lesson the hard way.
To be sure, Trump’s celebrity status was a major factor in securing the GOP’s presidential nomination. Along the way, his notoriety attracted an estimated $2.4 billion in free television coverage, 91 percent of which was positive, according to media analytics firm mediaQuant. Notably, while Trump’s television coverage was most positive throughout the primary season, it was not much more so than the ratings given to other candidates. Crimson Hexagon, a social media software analytics company, similarly concluded in a study that Trump received a mix of positive and negative print coverage similar to that of other major candidates—about the same as Democrat Bernie Sanders.
Trump occasionally received special treatment, such as being allowed to conduct television interviews by phone. In this way, Trump exploited television’s hunger for ratings, as the threat (stated or unstated) of losing access to Trump interviews represented a prisoner’s dilemma or collective action problem not unlike that Trump’s GOP rivals faced. This advantage, however, was marginal compared to the sheer volume of coverage he received, which largely drowned out Trump’s rivals.
The Catch-22 of Mass Media Frenzy
The Donald’s near-universal name identification, combined with saturation television coverage, arguably made him the establishment candidate to casual, “somewhat” conservative voters. The Republican Party had a deep bench in 2016, but the only candidate who could have possibly competed with Trump for the establishment position in terms of name identification and branding was Jeb Bush. Yet not even the Bush dynasty could raise $2.4 billion. Moreover, Bushworld never realized Jeb’s brand was not marketable in 2016 due to lingering buyer’s remorse over his brother’s presidency. Trump realized it and ruthlessly exploited it—but that was not a media skill.
As a result, television outlets got their ratings and Trump (barring a catastrophe) got the Republican nomination. Looking at the world through a Trumpian lens, who got the better end of that deal? The media was able to charge what Rush Limbaugh might call confiscatory ad rates for events like the GOP debates, and the television channels got their infotainment. Trump is nothing if not entertaining. But that $2.4 billion in free media, while making Trump more popular with Republicans, made him less popular with everyone else.
Over the course of Trump’s campaign, the same pattern appears when voters are asked whether Trump is qualified to be president (60 percent say no) or whether people are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis (61 percent are uneasy). Such internals are largely persisting even in polls showing a statistical tie with Hillary Clinton. If Trump has established a political brand, it is one with limited appeal outside the GOP. Jeb Bush was thought arrogant when he said a nominee should “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.” Trump may be testing the opposite proposition.
Trump’s Media ‘Strategy’ Falls Apart
As the primary season ends, the media has predictably pivoted to harsher coverage of the presumed Republican nominee. Trump recently held a press conference to defend his campaign’s tardiness in donating funds ostensibly raised at a charity event for veterans’ groups, and used the occasion to lash out at the press (which plays well with the GOP base, but almost certainly helps perpetuate further negative coverage). The trial judge in the civil fraud case against Trump University granted media requests to unseal documents in which former managers of the enterprise described an unscrupulous, high-pressure sales operation that exploited the vulnerable.
Trump’s response in this instance was to assert U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had an inherent conflict of interest in presiding over the Trump U trial, based on his ethnicity, membership in a a Latino lawyers’ association, and presumed opposition to Trump’s immigration proposals. Trump’s attack on the judge engendered further cycles of negative media coverage, including rebukes from Trump supporters such as Newt Gingrich.
Amid this turmoil, sources close to the Trump campaign reportedly have informed the media that there is no communications team and no rapid response director to rebut or launch attacks. The campaign also has a limited number of surrogates, who reportedly receive conflicting messages from the campaign and Trump himself (who has urged surrogates to double down on his inflammatory remarks concerning both Curiel and the media). These reports are consistent with Trump’s own recent interviews, in which he repeated his attack on the judge and allowed that similar claims could be raised about a Muslim judge.
Some have suggested that Trump’s response is a continuation of his basic media “strategy” of changing the subject in the face of bad news. In general, this is not genius in crisis communications; “Mad Men’s” Don Draper was fond of saying that if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
In particular, one might consider Trump’s alternatives. Trump failed to respond to the substance of Hillary Clinton’s attacks on his judgment and temperament to be president. He also largely failed to address the recent report from the State Department’s inspector general, which was highly critical of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to handle classified information. Trump also spent less than a day on a disappointing jobs report. Any of these conversations would have been better than one about whether it is proper for a presidential candidate to suggest a federal judge is incapable of doing his job based on his ethnicity.
In sum, since his rivals’ withdrawal, Trump’s comments and conduct are not those of the media genius he was so often mythologized to be during the primaries. Rather, they seem more like the counterproductive tantrums of a novice nominee who does not understand that his brand is currently unappealing to people outside the GOP. Worse, Trump seems to have forgotten that the reason he cultivated the media for decades was because they are more powerful than he is.