Over the past week, Donald Trump has expressed regret for some of his caustic comments and reshuffled his campaign staff, fueling a theory that he’s laying the groundwork to build a media empire to rival Fox News. On Monday, he shifted his tone on immigration reform, while his new campaign manager said “the pivot that he’s made is on substance” and Republican leaders said “he’s going to get this thing back on track.”
Dan Urman, a political science and public policy expert and assistant teaching professor at Northeastern, discusses the recent campaign moves and how the attention to Trump’s “brand” may be a win for the candidate, even if he loses in November.
Donald Trump’s campaign made major staff changes last week, less than three months before Election Day. It was the second major staff change for the campaign in two months. Is there any precedent for these sorts of leadership changes within campaigns—especially in such close proximity to each other and to Election Day?
While presidential campaign staff changes are fairly common, they usually occur earlier in the process, during the party primaries. A recent example like Trump’s took place during John Kerry’s (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign in 2004. Around Labor Day that year, Kerry added several senior staffers with experience on previous campaigns. Unlike Trump, nobody resigned or formally left the campaign, but a few people did have diminished roles. Kerry’s staff change represented “addition” as opposed to “replacement” or “shake-up,” where Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, replaced Paul Manafort on the Trump campaign.
Like most things this cycle, Trump’s move represents something new. Usually, replacements involve efforts to “reset” the campaign in a new direction with an “adult in the room.” That was certainly the case with Paul Manafort, an experienced political operative, stepping in for Corey Lewandowski, who lacked such experience, in April of this year. In last week’s shakeup, Trump chose someone with zero experience running a presidential campaign. Paul Manafort, the ousted chairman, was the type of person you’d expect to be brought in, not the one replaced.
In a speech last week, Trump said “Sometimes, in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that, and believe it or not I regret it.” It was a change in tone for the Republican nominee, who has been known more for his bravado on the campaign trail. What is your assessment of his comment and how do you think it will play with voters?
It marked a slight change in tone, but Trump did not express regret for anything he specifically said. I would be quite surprised if this change “sticks.” Trump has never been able to “stay on message” for long. In early June, Trump spoke at his golf club, even using a teleprompter. Then, less than one week later, he sent a self-congratulatory tweet after the Orlando shooting, essentially saying “I told you so” instead of expressing sympathy for the victims. He also insinuated that President Obama was sympathetic to ISIS. In early August, GOP insiders tried to “reset” the campaign, and soon thereafter, Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” could potentially stop Hillary Clinton from implementing gun control. Until this speech, Trump had not adjusted his behavior since he formally accepted the Republican Party nomination. That is a traditional time when candidates “pivot” back to the center to secure moderate votes.
This comment could potentially change voters’ minds if Trump matched it with deeds. He would need to remain disciplined and “on message” for the remainder of the campaign, but the Clinton campaign has the resources and organization to remind voters of everything Trump has said during the campaign and throughout his life. If past is precedent, we will soon see a repeat of the behaviors mentioned earlier. Bringing Steve Bannon in to lead the campaign is not a move toward a “kinder, gentler,” candidate.
A recent New Yorker piece posits that Trump’s latest campaign reshuffle might have less to do with trying to win the election than “laying the groundwork for a new conservative media empire to challenge Fox.” What, in your view, is Trump’s endgame—to become the next president of the United States or to become a media mogul, the creator of his very own news network?
I choose “C,” for both, or all of the above. Donald Trump represents a fusion of our reality television/celebrity-obsessed culture and our increasingly fragmented and partisan media landscape. Trump’s behavior suggests that he is satisfied as long as a story keeps him in the news. This campaign is all about Trump, and only Trump (it is never about his running mate, Mike Pence; when Trump introduced the VP pick at a rally, it was still about Trump). Trump’s desire for attention is, in my view, unprecedented. I have not seen a candidate seeking it more than him; he embodies the old adage, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” In other words, for Trump, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Trump has monetized attention and his “brand,” whether it involves wine, buildings, food, or education. Becoming president is one way to stay in the news, but if he does not, more people will be familiar with him and his brands. For now, running for president is the ultimate way to “stay in the news.” He would have the (appropriately named) bully pulpit. If he loses, then bringing on recently ousted Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and “alt-right” leader Steve Bannon sets him up for a future media channel: Trump TV (or something web or app based). There is a model for this, especially on the political right: Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee parlayed their unsuccessful campaigns into lucrative television and media opportunities. Trump is already a brand; this elevates it. In that regard, Trump “wins” either way.
As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” At this point, Trump’s chances for winning are quite slim, but it’s hard to declare the election over before Labor Day. The candidates have not debated. There’s a chance for a historical “gaffe” during one of their three televised showdowns or an “October surprise,” a dramatic event timed to influence the outcome of the election.