Who could forget it?
Donald Trump and wife Melania stepping away from the golden Currency Exchange entrance within Trump Tower and riding an escalator down, down amid a cheering crowd and the thumping tones of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
It was a pure Trump moment — announcing the death of the American dream and his plan personally to revive it by running for the presidency of the United States.
That was more than a year ago — June 16, 2015, in fact — and it marked a political season like no other. In a country where politics has been media-driven for generations, this has been one long media paroxysm now about to shake Philadelphia for the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton has quite an act to follow as she takes center stage.
In the birdshot of cable news, social media, and internet broadcasting, both candidates are clearly defined: Trump, real estate mogul, brash celebrity, and master media manipulator; Clinton, experienced stateswoman, cautious chameleon, and policy wonk.
Trump puppeteers reporters and broadcasters at will — even as he disses them to his supporters, kicks them out of news conferences, and skips lightly over their hapless efforts to question what he does and says.
Clinton, bruised by 25 years in the spotlight, buffeted by one purported scandal after another that never pans out, is now deeply wary of the media, cautious in her public statements, fearing her words will be twisted yet again.
“Clinton by and large was and is a model of the old media rather than the newer,” said Randall Miller, professor of American history at St. Joseph’s University. “She’s been around. She’s old news.”
Clinton’s issue now is how to become new news.
“We never see the Hillary Clinton who is spontaneous and funny and real,” notes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “There is a difference between the person described by friends and associates and the person we see in public.”
The difference? The media.
“Donald Trump is in the media so often we have a sense of who he is, warts and all,” Jamieson says.
That may be because Trump has used the media forever and now has turned the 2016 campaign cycle into his own reality show, as essayist and historian Neal Gabler has argued.
Trump is the star, the media are enablers or villains, and everything else is a foil — other candidates, their wives, policy, politics itself.
“The big story (of 2016) is Donald Trump, as a person, as a successful candidate,” said Miller. “He’s changing the process of electing a president. Everything is blown up. It’s unprecedented.”
The media environment was already in meltdown regardless of Trump. Social media has exploded. Traditional newspaper readership has shriveled. Newsrooms have shed reporters like falling leaves. Television has had a decline in viewers.
More than any other candidate, Trump has seized opportunity in this turbulent moment, going from about 3 percent in the polls the day before his June 2015 announcement to winner of the brass ring. And he’s done it by breaking the rules — no traditional fund-raising, lending his own money, eschewing traditional advertising, generating huge crowds at appearances, enjoying endless hours of free news coverage, sending an unending stream of often snarky tweets, and sometimes seeming to invite violence at campaign rallies.
Trump is not a candidate; he’s a walking news event.
Perhaps never before have the traditional media seemed so flummoxed and enthralled. …
Thomas Patterson, professor of government and the press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, in an analysis of the campaign run-up in 2015, says Trump has satisfied the journalistic need for the new and unusual like no other candidate in recent times.
“Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee,” he says. “Journalists fueled his launch.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, often twinned in the media with Trump as an outsider, uses media in a traditional way. He presents himself as a candidate, not a star personality. He has used social media, but in a conventional media fashion — to raise money and convey ideas.
Sanders, says Miller of St. Joseph’s, “is benefiting from social-media tweets of his supporters spreading the word; Trump is generating the tweets.”
Journalists have struggled, seeking to frame this Trump phenomenon. Why has he not run aground on statements or behavior that would have destroyed candidates in the past?
Howard Dean was squashed for a simple, rally-the-troops howl to disappointed supporters after coming in third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. But in 2016, nothing seems off-limits for Trump.
Gabler points out that “the more outrageous (Trump) is, the more attention he gets.”
Trump’s rise “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” CBS chairman Les Moonves famously told Wall Street analysts in February. …
The larger point is that Trump is a celebrity. People have been watching him for decades.
Long before “The Apprentice,” there was Donald Trump, man about town; Donald Trump, wheeler-dealer; Donald Trump, rich guy; Donald Trump, divorcé. His nickname, “The Donald,” came from his very public breakup with wife Ivana, played out on the front pages of the nation’s tabloids.
The tabloids have taken down many past aspirants, but they promoted Trump and his celebrity world, a world in which anything goes — if it boosts circulation or ratings or, most of all, titillates or nourishes feelings of moral superiority.
Trump “has no sense of vulnerability,” says Jamieson — in stark contrast to Clinton, the more conventional candidate. Clinton, perhaps because she has weathered decades of criticism, often comes across as wary in public, Jamieson notes.
He says Clinton does not seem willing to provide access to the media. She avoids news conferences and minimizes interviews. Her media coverage, on the whole, is not flattering — as many analyses have shown. The contrast between Trump and Clinton could not be more stark.
“One candidate is compulsively accessible,” Jamieson says. “The other won’t have a press conference. She’s unwilling to take the risk.”
Trump knows that, to his base, he is untouchable.
“It’s the celebrity,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. “His unpredictability. His use of language we’re unused to in politics. He’s making these statements and drawing huge crowds. Who knows what he’s likely to say?”
The big question for Clinton is will she take the risk and open up in public, says Jamieson.
“This election,” says Madonna, “is defying everything we’ve seen.”