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Though he may never publicly admit it, Donald Trump effectively conceded the 2020 presidential election on Monday, when his federal government’s General Services Administration finally signed off on the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming regime.
With a constitutional crisis, for now, averted, there is much speculation on what the future will hold for Trump. Whatever follows his remarkable, unprecedented four-year term in the White House, it’s hard to envisage him settling into a quiet post-presidency—perhaps one spent designing his presidential library and keeping quiet on his successor’s job performance.
What’s clear is that he leaves Washington much as he arrived: a divisive, polarizing figure who, despite losing a national election by millions of votes, retains a fiercely devoted following among segments of the American electorate. A new CNBC/Change Research poll this week found that 73% of Trump voters, apparently parroting the President’s baseless propaganda, believe that he was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. Should Trump decide to break away from the Republicans and start a political party of his own, 72% of those voters said they would gladly desert the GOP and follow him to a fledgling Trump Party.
If Trump really did run for president in 2015 primarily to bolster his brand and generate publicity—if he truly did think his long-shot candidacy would, if nothing else, lead to future media opportunities, or at the very least provide the upcoming season of The Apprentice with a ratings bump—then, all in all, the entire affair was a raging, unmitigated success. For all the talk of the Trump Organization’s sullied reputation and the millions of dollars in revenue lost as a result of Trump’s presidential joyride, the man himself will leave the White House with a built-in audience of tens of millions of Americans willing to hang on his every word and posture. As a public-facing brand, Trump’s is perhaps the most formidable in the history of American politics.
As such, there’s been heightened conjecture that Trump will finally realize what his presidency may have always been about in the first place: capitalizing on his burnished brand, and its fervent following, via a media venture of his own. Talk of “Trump TV” sprang up almost immediately after the election, apparently fueled by the President’s fury at Fox News Channel—and, reportedly, News Corp baron Rupert Murdoch—over the conservative network’s coverage of the race.
What that venture could look like is anybody’s guess at this point. Given the financial and logistical barriers to launching a cable news network from the ground up, a subscription-based online streaming channel has been floated—one that could see Trump parlay his campaign’s enviable troves of cell phone and email contact information into a database of would-be subscribers, according to Axios. And last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that allies of the President have explored an investment into Newsmax, the conservative website and broadcast network run by Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy, with the aim of building Newsmax into a legitimate challenger to Fox News. (Ruddy, for his part, has denied there being any such deal in the works.)
Both Newsmax and fellow right-wing cable channel One American News Network (OAN) have grown their reach substantially during the Trump era, thanks in no small part to co-signs from the President in the form of retweets and endorsements. In turn, they’ve displayed a willingness to do his bidding by disseminating talking points that are factually dubious at best and misinformation at worst—such as peddling spurious claims about COVID-19 and promoting Trump’s baseless allegations that the election was somehow stolen from him. It is content that “MAGA Nation” has proven all too ready to gobble up.
Indeed, Trump’s foray into politics was always a product of the sprawling, reactionary echo chamber that is the right-wing media apparatus. With his keen grasp of television and his mastery of social media, Trump was able to parlay his rhetoric of nativism and economic populism into a national political movement. Spurred on by conservative media figureheads like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, he has long since surpassed them in both his gravitational pull and tenuous relationship to the truth—driving conservative political discourse even further to the fringe in the process. With an army of devotees willing to follow him down any rabbit hole, no matter how bizarre and factually challenged, “Trump TV” would be the logical next step for America’s propagandist-in-chief, a man for whom even Fox News isn’t cutting it these days.
And should Trump somehow manage to avoid the myriad legal storm clouds looming on his post-presidential horizon, an upstart media vertical could not only prove a profitable endeavor, but also a launching point for yet another run for the White House in 2024. Deprived of the platform afforded to him by the White House, “Trump TV” would provide a bully pulpit from which he could strengthen his command of a conservative electorate that already appears to favor him as its preferred candidate the next time around.
While it would take some feat to challenge Fox News’ dominance of the conservative airwaves, there are signs that the Murdoch empire is taking notice. This week, Vanity Fair reported that News Corp is considering offering Trump a $100 million deal to bring him back into the fold—one that would involve publishing his presidential memoir through its HarperCollins subsidiary, and potentially rewarding him with his very own show on Fox News. “Rupert is going to make a humongous offer,” a source told the publication. “The thinking is, Let’s buy Trump off so he shuts the f— up.”
It remains to be seen whether such a reconciliation truly is in the cards, or if Trump decides to strike out on his own. Whatever path he chooses, any foray Trump takes into the media world will certainly be followed by the tens of millions of Americans who still look to him as their political truth-teller, despite ample evidence to the contrary. The era of hyper-polarization that he ushered in has equipped Trump with an enormous audience eager to tune in to what he’s pitching. In the media business, there are few things as valuable.
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