How does the phenomenon we call Donald Trump end? Will the real estate mogul-turned-reality-star-turned-presidential-candidate faceplant during Wednesday’s blockbuster debate on CNN? Will he go too far in savaging a fellow Republican contender? Will he call someone a “big, fat pig”? Might he alienate even his own supporters with an anti-immigrant joke that crosses the line? Will a slur from his past come back to haunt him?
Or will the media just get bored with him?
For the past two months, much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment, it’s been none of the above. Trump has called immigrants “rapists,” derided the war record of Sen. John McCain, possibly joked about women’s menstruation and questioned the electability of a female competitor due to “that face.” Reporters have dug up unflattering quotes from years past, from his less-than-uplifting remarks about 9/11 to his purported thoughts on “black guys” handling his money. (“I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”)
Yet, after all that, Trump still stands astride the Republican field, yelling “Make America Great Again.”
The media, for its part, has only inflated Trump’s presence as the weeks drag on, providing him with an exclusive platform and round-the-clock access to their phone lines and Americans’ living rooms. Last time International Business Times checked , Trump had gobbled up over 50 percent of the evening network coverage and enjoyed daily hits on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. It’s no wonder he’s still climbing in the polls, hitting 30 percent in a new CNN/ORC survey this week and topping a New York Times poll as well.
But how long can one candidate completely control the media, starving out all his competition?
Refusing To Implode
Matt Mackowiak, president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told IBT that Trump is likely to continue to defy political logic and game the political media. “I think we’ve all made a lot of predictions about this, and most of us have been wrong, myself included,” he admitted.
It’s true that Trump has managed to body-check seemingly everyone, from fellow candidates to journalists such as Univision's Jorge Ramos, without suffering any dip in support or attention. So if the pressure doesn’t come from outside his campaign, is it possible Trump himself has an exit strategy, lest he end up having to actually run the country?
One school of thought is that Trump will bolt from the race as soon as he perceives Trumpmania to be losing its charm, or that his supporters are less than likely to actually turn out at the polls. Longtime Republican operative Stuart Stevens wrote as much in a column last month, arguing that Trump is not interested in taking this fight to the bitter end. Instead, Stevens wrote, he’ll wait until the first moment he seems to be losing momentum, and drop out before he ever has to deal with being No. 2.
“He went through none of the usual steps of considering a candidacy -- talking to donors, conferring with party leaders, etc. -- he just got in because, well, he wanted to. And so it will be when he leave,” Stevens wrote.
“He’ll exit when polls still show he can win and forever he will be able to argue he could have won. And in doing so, he will have won by Trump rules.”
'A Slow Bleed Over Time'
Mackowiak doesn’t buy that. He thinks Trump no longer has a reason to bail. “I think what’s changed is that Trump now thinks this is actually winnable,” he said. “At this point, I think the incentive for him to get out is pretty weak and instead the incentive would be to ride this out.”
“It’s unlikely Trump will blow himself up in one instance,” he added. “I think it’ll be a slow bleed over time.”
One possibility is that the media will team up with Trump’s rivals and begin to hit him hard with serious opposition research, wearing him down slowly. It’s hard to imagine Trump staying in the race if his rivals and the media come at him day after day with a genuine bombshell that he, for once in his life, is unable to brush off. And that could start as soon as Wednesday night’s debate.
“The stakes are higher this time because he’s in a much stronger position now than the last debate,” Mackowiak said. “He’s gonna get a much wider range of attacks from a much larger number of candidates.”
The Grand Inquisitor
For instance, CNN’s inclusion of conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt as a questioner could be a big problem from Trump on Wednesday. Just last week, Hewitt threw Trump for a loop in an radio interview while quizzing him on the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah. The front-runner later snarled that Hewitt was full of "gotcha" questions.
It's possible that Hewitt, a notoriously aggressive interviewer, will manage to bark louder than Trump and humiliate him on live TV. That would be a big moment for Hewitt -- up until this point a well-known but peripheral media figure in the conservative radio sphere -- and a toxic one for Trump himself.
Still, it’s hard to dream up what could be a silver bullet for Trump’s campaign. His media appeal, like his political charm, is fourfold: His celebrity, his wealth, his outsider status and, finally, his relentless, over-the-top messaging. Even if a fellow candidate were able to neutralize even one of those things, Trump would still have these other pillars of his persona going for him.
Whatever Trump’s strategy turns out to be, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza insists the media is not to blame for the Donald’s prolonged dominance, calling the suggestion “absolutely ridiculous.”
“If you are looking to "blame" someone (or someones) for the pole position Trump currently enjoys, you should look around you,” he wrote on Tuesday. “Trump is resonating with the American public — or at least a portion of the American public — thanks to his ability to channel their fears, hopes and frustrations.
“The media didn't create Trump, and the media won't bring Trump down,” he said. “Only Trump can determine what happens from here. Deal with it.”