August 25, 2018

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: From Reality TV to Reality Politics: What Cohen, Omarosa, and Avenatti know that Democrats don’t.

Trump’s fame, wealth, and marginal position in the worlds of government, news media, and finance exempted him, in the minds of his supporters, from the informal rules that had conditioned the words and actions of candidates and presidents for years. Such freedom allowed him to bring into the political arena methods and practices from the worlds he knew best: tabloid journalism, professional wrestling, and reality television.

Shocking claims, conspiracy theories, and hints of lurid revelations that never quite pan out are straight from Page Six and the National Enquirer. The tent-pole rally, the braggadocio, posturing, invective, and prowling around stage are drawn from the WWE, and Trump’s long ties, Brioni suits, and unmistakable hair are all part of his “character.” His flair for operatic and unexpected shifts in direction, ambiguity and unpredictability in relationships, Twitter as “confessional,” emphasis on appearance, and love of the cliffhanger made his job-competition game show remarkably successful and durable.

Trump went from star of reality TV to sole practitioner of reality politics. He turned Republican, national, then world politics into a riveting spectacle, a new sort of contest in which the stakes are nothing less than the fate of the United States and the protagonist must face down a staggering number of opponents to win the prize. And Trump had an advantage. He alone was familiar with the contents of the reality politics rulebook. Which meant that his antagonists, from Bob Corker to Robert Mueller, from Chuck Schumer to Elizabeth Warren, from the media to the NFL, from Ayatollah Khamenei to Xi Jinping, were on defense.

This asymmetry ended last month. On July 25, Trump confronted something he had not seen before: An opponent who not just understood reality politics, but who also could practice them wholeheartedly because he was not beholden to elite institutions. Michael Cohen’s announcement that he had secretly taped Trump discussing payments to Stormy Daniels exemplified the new political mode. It was a stunning betrayal by a shameless man who said he had more secrets to spill. And the tapes themselves, surreptitiously recorded, played perfectly in a heated media environment where audio and visual recording is much more important than the gab-gab-gab of punditry.

It cannot be an accident that, in another development fit for sweeps week, Cohen was soon joined by a second Trump protégé. Last week, when Omarosa launched her new book by playing tapes of her own on NBC, she began executing a series of moves familiar to any Trump watcher. She made headlines not only with her charges against the president, but also with her suggestion, without any evidence, that there exists a secret recording in which Trump says the N-word.

What Cohen and Omarosa learned from Trump is that, whether it is true or not, the media will latch on to a hyperbolic statement just for its sensationalistic value.

Yep. Trump exists because our news media suck. Their response so far has been to suck more.

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