Even if the stories about Donald Trump being worried about Fox News host and debate co-moderator Megyn Kelly before Thursday’s GOP presidential debate were true (they aren’t), Trump has nothing to worry about. If Kelly intends to trip up Trump on Thursday night, she will discover how difficult that will be since Trump is a celebrity candidate who is a much bigger star–and known by more Americans–than she is.
In a normal presidential debate with traditional politicians, the debate moderators usually succeed in being the star attractions even though the debates are supposed to put the spotlight on the presidential candidates. Kelly and debate co-moderators Chris Wallace and Bret Baier may try to appeal to mainstream media elites or the Republican establishment by throwing roadblocks in front of Trump (or helping other candidates do so), but they will find out that the normal rules of politics do not apply to Trump because he is a celebrity whom many Americans liked long before he entered politics. His signature book, The Art of the Deal, is one of the best-selling business books of all time. His reality show, The Apprentice, helped revolutionize reality television and had plenty of staying power in an era when shows fizzle after a season. Americans are familiar with him and associate his brand with success. His negatives are already “baked in the cake” as they say.
The media usually hold enormous power over normal politicians whom regular Americans do not know because they are able to shape how candidates are perceived by voters. The media can seize upon a gaffe and start their campaign to smear a politician they do not like as a racist, sexist, or bigot. Regular politicians, though much less so in the new media age, still are often at the mercy of the media, which determine how their remarks are framed and what soundbites to play and events to cover. Moderators, with their line of questioning, can even determine what type of first impression candidates make. But they cannot do so with Trump, who has been on television for years in the living rooms of millions of Americans.
As frustrated reporters like Sam Donaldson found out during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, celebrity politicians and candidates can go around and over the heads of the media and take their message directly to the people. When Donald Trump speaks in front of a bathroom in Laredo, Texas, the media rush to air his remarks live, allowing voters to listen to Trump without their filters. If Trump were a normal politician, the media would have destroyed him after his remarks about illegal immigrants from Mexico. They would have succeeded in smearing him as an anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic racist. But because of Trump’s celebrity, he was able to remind voters that he was speaking about illegal immigrants and has “great respect” for the people of Mexico. If Trump were a normal politician, the media would have gleefully ended his campaign after his remarks about Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) service. Americans cheer for athletes and celebrities who have done and said things far worse than Trump’s offhand remarks about McCain’s service, but the mainstream media were still shocked when Trump continued to surge in the polls (they also, as usual, underestimated how much Republican primary voters dislike McCain) when they predicted it was the “beginning of the end” of his campaign.
Simply put, when Americans like a celebrity, it is exponentially tougher for the press to change what people think of him, and that is why Trump has become “Teflon Don” in this election cycle much to the consternation and bewilderment of the media and the chattering class.
And though this is Trump’s first presidential debate, he should feel like he is more in his element than the other candidates or the moderators. NBC’s Chuck Todd finally acknowledged on Tuesday that Donald Trump is rocketing up the polls because he is the most “21st century media savvy of all the candidates.”
“I always thought there would be a candidate who would understand the new way the media works,” Todd said on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC show. “Which is all on, all accessible at all times to anybody. Whether you are dealing with NBC news or Gawker, TMZ or Fox News.”
Perhaps that is why Fox’s Baier admitted last month that he woke up to “cold sweats” thinking about how to potentially control Trump. Kelly even admitted this week that the moderators had even come up with a “secret plan” to contain him.
Todd added that he didn’t think “any of us would have thought that Donald Trump would be that candidate that figured it out first, but he did and I think that should be the lesson that other campaigns are taking away from this.”
The fact that Trump is running circles around his opponents–and mainstream media reporters–in the new media environment should not be surprising. Ronald Reagan, a former sportscaster and actor, was the perfect candidate for an era dominated by three broadcast networks, and he bested the media, with the help of Mike Deaver. Reporters thought voters were hearing what they were saying about Reagan. They were simply just listening to Reagan’s words. Politics in the new media age is a 24-hour reality show that is part Wrestlemania, part Miss USA pageant. Is it any surprise that Trump, who starred on the highly-rated Apprentice, rassled in Vince McMahon’s WWE, and owns the Miss USA pageant, is thriving like no other candidate in today’s media environment?
And that is why even though this is Trump’s first presidential debate, Kelly, Baier, and Wallace are playing on his turf more than Trump is on theirs. Trump knows what to do when the cameras go on and naturally projects an authenticity that high-paid consultants desperately try to manufacture. That’s a tough type of candidate to trip up.