Mapping Out Trump’s Media Future

Mapping Out Trump's Media Future
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

At some point in the near future, Donald Trump will be exhausted by the sheer futility of his legal fight to subvert democracy. Then he’ll turn his attention to the 2024 race and the massive debt and legal fees he needs to pay off and make his next move: becoming some incarnation of a media personality.

Trump has a broad array of options to pursue. A lucrative book deal already seems certain, but question marks hover over everything else. He could continue his successful association with Fox News or, as he’s been doing lately, flirt with smaller right-wing TV alternatives like Newsmax or One America News Network. He could also skip over linear TV entirely and, as Axios recently reported, pursue his own streaming network. And don’t forget talk radio, a conservative-friendly medium if there ever was one.

To borrow the parlance of the electoral map, there are “many paths to victory” for a Trump media career. But don’t be surprised if Trump only avails himself of the laziest options in front of him.

Ever since Fox News had the nerve to deviate from its usual course of pro-Trump propaganda to call the race in Arizona for Biden, the president has whipped up his base against Fox and directed them to the channel’s much smaller and more sycophantic competitors.

It’s actually been an impressive display of Trump’s power, as post-Election Day protests on his behalf have featured no small degree of anti-Fox sentiment and a discernible ratings boost for Newsmax that may have some in Rupert Murdoch’s camp sweating at least a little bit.

But don’t bet that this swing in sentiment will be long term. The Fox-Trump tension is far from a new phenomenon; this has always been a tempestuous love affair. Though the media narrative has it that Fox’s Arizona betrayal represents some kind of flashpoint in its conflict with Trump, Murdoch deliberately made a very public retreat from Trump’s corner in the weeks before election.

What we are watching is a very dysfunctional relationship disentangle itself. Not that they’re breaking up. Heavens no, there’s too much codependency at play to make that a possibility. But Trump losing the White House calls for a recalibration of leverage, and both sides are going to work this out in the messiest, most public forum because they know no other way.

It’s inevitable Trump and Fox will get back together, but for now we’ll see Trump play the field and canoodle with random floozies like Newsmax and OANN to make Murdoch jealous.

Trump will continue to cavort with Newsmax as if he’s ready to get serious for the long term but he knows that even a weakened Fox is much more powerful. More likely Newsmax’s audience growth will hit a ceiling, and Trump will get frustrated and think longingly of the bigger crowd just waiting for him over at Fox.

The only scenario in which he kindles a new long-term romance is if he’s going to take an ownership stake in one of these small ventures, but there are contradictory indications that’s really in the offing: Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy told Variety he’s not “actively selling,” but The Wall Street Journal reported a Trump-connected private-equity firm has held negotiations.

But don’t count out these star-crossed lovers just yet; they will kiss and make up. What form this reunion will take will probably be the same one they’ve enjoyed the last four years: the usual roster of Fox shows will have Trump on speed dial to call into their shows periodically and take up significant airtime.

It might make more sense to take the relationship to the next level and get POTUS a show of his own, but who are we kidding here? Trump doesn’t have the discipline to fill an hour every week, and even if he said he did, Fox would know better than to have faith he could.

A “Trump TV” venture seems equally improbable. While that certainly makes more sense than launching a linear cable network, ask another former conservative darling, Glenn Beck, how easy it is to sustain such a venture even after getting off to a great start. It doesn’t get any easier if your main attraction really has his eye on 2024, not building a business.

The same goes for talk radio, a medium that may suit Trump’s rambling discursiveness better than anything else. Trump does not have the ability to fill hours of airtime with some kind of structured coherence, unless he’s paired with some kind of sidekick capable of keeping him from veering off the rails.

It’s hard to believe Trump will be able to muster anything resembling the kind of long-term strategic outlook required to map out his media career, He sure didn’t show anything beyond short-term thinking while president, it’s hard to believe that’s going to change after the fact.

If anything, what we’ll see from Trump is focusing where he always has: Twitter, where 140-character bursts at no particular set schedule are the most we can expect in terms of some kind of recurring programming.

But there is one aspect missing from the media discussion that is so obvious yet is somehow entirely absent from all the speculation: Trump’s rallies.

Because the ostensible purpose of these gatherings was to get him elected, it’s easy to make the assumption they’ll go away now that he lost. But don’t bet on it. It’s well documented that being with his supporters is what makes Trump happiest. Just look at the motorcades he embarked on this past weekend at the Stop the Steal protest and in his Walter Reed Medical Center visit last month. The man is never happier than when he is among his supporters. It’s the chicken soup that nourishes his blackened soul.

Look for these rallies to continue, only they won’t be rallies. He’ll tour small to mid-size venues throughout the country to feed off the fervor of the craziest core of his supporters, who will likely stick with him for many years. There’s no reason he should have any trouble monetizing that audience. It’s not the kind of thing people think of when they think of his media strategy, but it is a strategy nonetheless.