Election Post-Mortem: How Everything Came Up Trump
What should have killed Trump's political career, only made him stronger. Matt Taibbi marvels at Trump's immunity to scandal and baffling resilience to normal media strategies.
How many lives does Donald Trump have, wonders political correspondent Matt Taibbi. Trump’s scandals and embarrassments on the campaign trail were enough to bury any normal politician several times over. And yet, he survived. Taibbi attributes Trump’s immunity to the political kiss of death to what he describes as the sweet spot: Trump was able to satisfy the media's thirst for advertising dollars while simultaneously satisfying his campaign donors, despite his many incidents – a rarity. When a presidential candidate has an excruciating media moment (like Howard Dean’s 2004 scream) it’s normally the beginning of the end; the media circles in on them, public pressure mounts, and they are dropped. It was not so for Trump, journalists knew what to do with a politician, but not an entertainer. "He was sort of defying the usual laws of gravity and [the media] just didn't know what to do about it," Taibbi says. Matt Taibbi's most recent book is Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the American Circus.
Matt Taibbi's most recent book is Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the American Circus.
Matt Taibbi: Trump, his innovation was to recognize from the start that the campaign is really a bad reality show and he made it a good reality show. That's not saying that qualitatively he was a good person, I'm just saying that he knew how to make good television, he knew how to attract eyeballs. It's entertainment.
If you think about the financial incentives that everybody who's on the bus or on the campaign plane you have the candidates who are funded by a very small group of ultra powerful commercial donors and then you have the press and they're basically funded by advertising dollars. And so somewhere along the line there's a synergy between the person who is the most entertaining on the one hand and who is able to satisfy the donor class in the other hand. If you find that sweet spot in the middle of those two phenomenon that's usually where you're going to get your candidate, someone who is a little bit entertaining and also a little bit morally flexible. As a result of that at the outset of the campaign especially he was able to attract mountains, billions of dollars probably of free coverage at a period of the race when other candidates have to buy their own publicity
And he made it into a kind of a genuine revolt where his voters perceive themselves as the kind of the aggrieved victims of a conspiracy of elites that were represented by all the donors, the press, the two parties. And he managed to get past a lot of the kind of bull works that we usually had thrown up in the past to keep people like that out. Like for instance, normally when a candidate slips up and makes a mistake, a la Howard Dean when he made his scream or Gary Hart when he got busted with the monkey business photo, we typically used to descend upon a candidate. A reporter I know used to call it the seal of death where we would kind of swirl around a candidate with negative attention and that would really be it, a few hundred times show a damning clip and the person would just exit the scene, there would be a humiliating public apology and a drop in the polls and then a few weeks later you wouldn't hear from that candidate again.
That didn't happen this time, Trump managed to survive countless scandals like that and every time everybody expected him to go down in the polls he went up in the polls. And I think a lot of people in our profession were kind of flummoxed by that. He was sort of defying the usual laws of gravity and we just didn't know what to do about it.