Politicians campaign to win votes and collect contributions. So somebody who is unfettered by either of those concerns represents a bit of a wild card – and a reason why Donald Trump is sucking oxygen out of the Republican presidential race.
Although almost nobody in elite political or media circles wants to take the wealthy host of “The Apprentice” seriously as a candidate, his blunt talk and colorful style make him positively catnip for both the media and latenight comedians, who have barely been able to contain their glee since his entry into the process. And because Trump’s primary goal seems to be garnering attention – something he has historically been quite good at – he can say and do the kind of things that become virtually impossible to ignore.
So while more traditional politicians jockey to break out of the crowded GOP pack, they find themselves vying for coverage with Trump, who kicked off his campaign with inflammatory remarks about Mexican immigrants that turned into a multi-day feeding frenzy, prompting Univision to drop its telecast of the Trump-backed Miss USA Pageant and the mogul threatening a retaliatory lawsuit. Top that, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Indeed, almost everything about Trump’s forays into politics since President Obama’s election have been infused with an apparent desire to generate maximum exposure, from his embrace of “birtherism,” attempting to prove Obama was not actually born in the United States; to bouts of childish name-calling directed at the likes, recently, of syndicated columnist/Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer, who dared to laugh off his presidential bid.
For all the derision hurled at him, Trump’s media affiliations remained firmly in place until he declared his candidacy. At that point, NBC felt compelled to sideline “The Apprentice” and Fox News Channel dropped him as a regular “Fox & Friends” contributor.
Conservative pundits like Krauthammer and Karl Rove can dismiss Trump as a clown, but as long as the media keeps lapping up his act, it’s pretty clear who’s having the last laugh. (Speaking of laughs, who else among the GOP contenders can cite being subjected to a Comedy Central Roast on his resume?)
The question now for Republicans is how long Trump will stay in the race, and how much damage he might potentially inflict in the name of gratifying his ego. In a devastatingly pointed National Review column, Kevin D. Williamson lumped Trump into the category of “reality-television freak,” saying that despite his business credentials, “he has a lot more in common with Paris Hilton than with Henry Ford.”
At the risk of being the bearer of bad news to those eager to see him go away, people also mock the Kardashians, who, like Trump, feed off their coverage and enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the media. And guess what? It’s done nothing to knock them out of the headlines – in the same way such criticism is unlikely to drive Trump, who gives the impression of relishing such combat, out of the field.
“I’m in it to win it,” Trump told Jake Tapper, the new host of CNN’s “State of the Union,” in an interview televised Sunday. Trump also pointed out that he was “giving up a primetime television show” to pursue the White House, although strictly in terms of media exposure, that would seem to be more than a fair tradeoff.
Even with his ascent in recent polls, one suspects “winning,” in the conventional sense, isn’t going to happen. But Trump’s definition of victory might not be quite the same as other candidates. In fact, the only real loss he could suffer would be if people stopped talking and writing about him — having demonstrated, time and again, that he sees commanding the spotlight as its own reward.