Like all good conservatives, Donald Trump has to go through the motions of expressing contempt for the mainstream (pardon, “lamestream”) media and liberal Hollywood. And like any good show-business romance, that animosity means he secretly can’t get enough of them, and vice versa.
The announcement that the mogul and reality-TV personality turned GOP presidential candidate will host “Saturday Night Live” follows in a long tradition of this symbiotic relationship between conservative political figures and the TV business. That’s because both clearly benefit from and feed off the other, with media types embracing the attention that Trump garners, whatever they might think of his politics, while Trump obviously can’t resist opportunities to bask in the spotlight and free exposure.
In that regard, Trump’s turn into politics is increasingly becoming the mirror image of Sarah Palin, who became an instant media darling when John McCain tapped a then-obscure Alaska governor as his running mate in 2008, and parlayed that into a fertile (or at least financially remunerative) connection to media. For all the derision heaped upon her, Palin couldn’t resist hamming it up on “SNL” during that campaign, any more than the NBC program could resist having her appear.
It’s worth noting that Palin’s TV opportunities were hardly limited to her steady gig on Fox News Channel. Discovery Networks’ TLC stepped up with an eight-episode commitment to “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” and daughter Bristol high-stepped into homes on “Dancing With the Stars.” More recently, Palin has been showcased on the Sportsman Channel, which, in TV terms, is admittedly the definition of downward mobility.
As Ana Marie Cox observed in a piece earlier this year for The Daily Beast, Palin has also continued to seek to pick fights with liberal and establishment personalities, in what has often felt like a bid for attention. As the sub-headline put it, Palin thus joins those conservatives who “decry the mainstream media while ceaselessly courting it.”
Trump has seemingly instinctively capitalized on an understanding that the media thrive on conflict, using all the tools at his disposal, including social media, to poke and bait rivals, as well as the media itself. What better way to get people talking about a Wolf Blitzer interview, after all – and make it echo through the media universe – than to deride the CNN anchor’s questions?
Perhaps that’s why none of Trump’s feuds, from NBC to Fox News Channel, have persisted for very long. They can fight, sure, but neither side can quit the other. Instead, they simply create a cycle of coverage, from Trump staying away to the inevitable return, each creating an inflection point for coverage. Indeed, the pattern has become a kind of traffic-inducing drug during this election cycle, with “SNL” and other late-night shows helping feed the media’s habit.
So while Trump can fuss all he wants about being treated unfairly by one media outlet or another, one suspects – as with so many reality shows – there’s more than a little play-acting built into that process. Because once personalities have demonstrated the ability to bring in viewers, both they and the mainstream media have every incentive to dive right in. And if that’s not a marriage made in heaven, it works out pretty well for everyone for as long as the honeymoon lasts.