The Trump campaign has rarely been seen as a paragon of competence. More often, it’s been regarded as a model for the opposite quality — and/or as the political equivalent of a metal container full of flaming refuse.
Bloomberg’s new exposé on the campaign’s inner workings simultaneously challenges and affirms that characterization. Reporters Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg were invited behind the scenes of the grotesque carnival that’s riveted America for the past 16 months. There they saw many things, including a vast data operation that seems ill-equipped to win a general election — but highly capable of cultivating a loyal digital audience for the show that Trump’s been putting on.
Using data culled from attendees at the mogul’s rallies and the RNC’s vast database, the Trump campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars each month “to cultivate a universe of millions of fervent Trump supporters, many of them reached through Facebook.”
By Election Day, the campaign expects to have an email list of at least 12 million members, and the contact information (and credit-card numbers) of 2.5 million small-dollar donors, who will have collectively paid $275 million to make America great again. (Since that list was generated with the Trump campaign’s own funds, he will own it after Election Day).
While Trump’s overall voting base skews quite old, this rabid online following is disproportionately composed of the millennial generation’s reactionary fringe, a group “younger, more populist and rural” than the rest of the GOP base, and also “angry, active, and fiercely loyal to Trump.”
Building a devoted digital audience among the “millennials for soft-core white nationalism” demographic is not a recipe for winning the White House. Particularly when this activity appears to have come at the exclusion of setting up a competitive ground-game operation and television ad campaign.
But it’s the perfect growth strategy for the Breitbart News Network, the far-right infotainment site co-founded by Trump’s campaign chair, Steve Bannon.
When Bannon was welcomed into the campaign’s highest ranks back in August, it immediately intensified the speculation that Trump was planning a postelection media enterprise. After all, if your goal is to expand your appeal outside of the right wing, why would you take direction from a self-identified leader of the “alt-right,” a reactionary splinter group that defines itself as being in opposition to both liberalism and the mainstream GOP? By contrast, if your goal is to plant the seeds of a media company targeted at this small but underserved demographic, consulting with the brains behind Breitbart makes sense.
Bloomberg’s piece offers a few new details on the Trump TV story line. Per Green and Issenberg, the idea for the network originated as a threat Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner made to then–Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, when the mogul’s feud with Megan Kelly sparked a war between the campaign and cable network. But word of the threat traveled, and soon Trump was fielding phone calls about the endeavor from five different media companies.
Trump has publicly denied having any interest in founding a right-wing cable network. And there’s little reason to think that the mogul has a deep and abiding interest in advancing the cause of right-wing nationalism in the United States. At various points in the last decade, Trump has publicly argued for free trade, liberal immigration policies, and Hillary Clinton’s virtues as a politician.
But Bannon has given every indication that he believes he’s converted Trump to his cause. While other campaign aides have refused to engage speculations about Trump TV, Bannon has encouraged them, repeatedly answering questions about such an enterprise with the statement “Trump is an entrepreneur.” Now Bannon is saying that the mogul is also a committed leader of the alt-right.
“Trump is a builder,” Bannon told Bloomberg. “And what he’s built is the underlying apparatus for a political movement that’s going to propel us to victory on Nov. 8 and dominate Republican politics after that.”
The latter ambition — to dominate conservative politics, win or lose — was echoed by Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale.
“We knew how valuable this would be from the outset,” Parscale said, referring to the campaign’s email list of youth reactionaries. “We own the future of the Republican Party.”
Beyond the fact that Trump has always shown more interest in self-promotion than he has in right-wing politics, there are other reasons to doubt Trump TV will materialize, not least being that few major advertisers would risk the brand damage of advertising on a network that aims to be No. 1 with white nationalists.
But the campaign appears to have done real damage to Trump’s brand as a signifier of ostentatious luxury, while radically increasing its value as a symbol of right-wing rage. And there are ways for Trump to capitalize on this latter fact, without trying to compete with Fox News in your cable package. Per Bloomberg:
The easiest move would be for Trump to partner with Bannon’s global Breitbart News Network, which already has a grip on the rising generation of populist Republicans. Along with a new venture, Trump would gain a platform from which to carry on his movement, built upon the millions of names housed in Project Alamo. “This is the pipe that makes the connection between Trump and the people,” says Bannon. “He has an apparatus that connects him to an ever-expanding audience of followers.”
Trump’s plans postelection remain uncertain, but Bannon’s couldn’t be clearer.
When reading Bloomberg’s piece, every other paragraph inspires the question: Why the hell are they telling a reporter this now?
At one point, the campaign informs the news outlet that it is pursuing “three major voter suppression operations” aimed at “idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.” The word suppression here proves to be hyperbolic — the operations are really just covert, targeted ad campaigns waged over social media. Among other things, the campaign has worked to put videos of Hillary Clinton referring to certain black men as “superpredators” into the Facebook feeds of unreliable African-American voters in Florida.
This strategy always contained the risk of sparking a backlash if exposed — few things motivate people to turn out like the knowledge that a candidate they despise is actively trying to stop them from doing so. The fact that the campaign has willfully exposed it itself is mind-boggling.
Unless the campaign’s senior staff members are less interested in winning (what looks like) an unwinnable election than they are in advertising their own diabolical cleverness — and the media business that’s about to grow out of that nefarious ingenuity.