Washington (dpa) – The day was only a few hours old, the situation in Brussels after the terrorist attacks was still unclear, yet Donald Trump had already made use of the news.
He called in to US broadcaster NBC’s morning show, and explained on live television what a dangerous place Brussels is, how the police there have no control, and that terrorists must be tortured. On Fox News, he spoke of how awful the images coming out of Brussels were, and how things will get even worse, and how the US must be careful who it allows into the country.
Between interviews the Republican presidential candidate feeds his Twitter account with similar observations.
So it has gone for the last nine months. America wakes up, and Trump is already on every channel.
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump participates in a campaign rally in Boca Raton, Florida, USA, 13 March 2016.
“I watched him calling in basically every morning show. He does it almost every day, he sets the agenda,” said Spencer Kimball, who teaches communication science at Emerson College in Boston. “In this way he takes all the oxygen out of the balloon. He can spin the debate to his advantage.”
It is a game for attention, and the 69-year-old always wins. He insults and he baits. The media can’t get enough of it. His assertions are effortlessly reduced to a few lines that fit perfectly into 140-character morsels. The more Trump shocks, the more attention he gets.
The conservative Washington Examiner newspaper describes it as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome for political journalism. That is, the phenomenon where victims of a kidnapping develop a positive relationship with the kidnappers.
Commentators are both bewildered and fascinated.
“The media is certainly attracted to Donald Trump,” Kimball said. “I have never seen a candidate that has used the media like that. He has taken it to a whole new level.”
The firm mediaQuant has calculated this attention’s equivalent advertising value at approximately 2 billion dollars. Democrat Hillary Clinton holds second place, with 746 million dollars worth of free advertising so far in the election.
This is directly linked to the interminable nature of US presidential elections.
“They just go on and on and on. They take two years. There is a huge element of entertainment,” said Joel Simon, director of CPJ, a organization that supports freedom of the press.
“You cannot focus on the issues for two years. So there is a lot of coverage on the horse race” and who is the most colourful, crazy person on the campaign trail, Simon said. Trump has understood this dynamic and has used it to his advantage.
“He is so far ahead of this game because Trump has been a brand, but he has also been a media outlet for a long time,” said Simon. “And he has been successful at it.
He has been able to exploit the moment and translate his experience to the campaign trail and succeed, Simon said.
Trump is a child of reality television. In the show The Apprentice he interviewed job candidates. His primary function was to fire them.
It is not as if there hasn’t been any critical coverage of Trump. Not a TV debate has gone by in which his crude assertions aren’t subject to a fact check. There have been several articles written that explain in detail why Trump’s dream of a wall on the US-Mexico border is unlikely to ever happen.
Countless commentaries have painted dismal visions of an America with Donald Trump as president. But it doesn’t affect his popularity in the least. He continues his apparently inexorable march to the Republican nomination.
And it doesn’t hurt his image that he treats journalists with contempt. At his appearances journalists are relegated to roped-off areas. When a Time magazine photographer left the designated area, a Secret Service agent threw him to the floor.
Megyn Kelly of the conservative Fox News network has been subject to Trump’s attacks for months after confronting him with uncomfortable questions. He later described her as a lightweight, and refused to take part in a TV debate on her network presumably because of her.
But then he flips and beguiles journalists, praising authors of certain articles at a press conference. Trump is so much more available to media compared to other candidates, said Kimball.
The broadcasters don’t call Trump, he calls them. Like he did on Tuesday after the attacks in Brussels.