On October 26, less than two weeks before Election Day, Donald Trump took time out from campaigning to officially open a new hotel of his in Washington. It’s an unusual way to spend several precious hours as they dwindle down, which is what makes the move a strong signal that Trump is already thinking hard about life beyond November 8.
Even more significantly, his campaign kicked off a nightly political talk show featuring the best of the Republican candidate’s surrogates praising their boss and dumping on his rival. True, it’s only a Facebook Live show, and the campaign calls it an attempt to “bypass the left-wing media”. But many media experts see it as Trump’s way to establish a regular broadcast presence even before the election is done.
Trailing in the polls as Election Day nears, Trump has not shown any signs of giving up. But while the New York billionaire keeps up his rigorous schedule of stumping in key states several times a day, his team and his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have begun looking into the feasibility of starting a Trump media operation if and when the race is over. At the helm of “Trump TV,” the candidate could hone his outsider’s influence on politics. And for his supporters, especially those from the far right, Trump TV could be a new home and a launching pad for future political leaders.
“This campaign has mainstreamed ideas that in the past would have fallen outside what our news outlets would even consider covering,” said Philip Napoli, an expert on media and public policy from Duke University. Napoli said the potential audience for a Trump news operation would be the “disaffected portion of the Fox News audience and the Breitbart crowd.” The network would also draw viewers from far-right circles — many associated with the “alt-right” — who have yet to find a major media outlet to reflect their views.
Trump believes that the hardcore of his supporters, the nearly 14 million Republicans who voted for him in the party primaries, will make up a large enough viewership pool to sustain a 24-hour cable news channel, featuring primarily low-cost programming like talk shows and punditry. He also already has an online army eager to disseminate the channel’s content across the internet.
A recent study by the Anti-Defamation League found that some of Trump followers have translated their anger toward the media into anti-Semitic attacks on journalists in mainstream media outlets covering the Trump campaign. The study found a significant surge in anti-Semitic tweets, reaching nearly 20,000 messages in the past year. The surge correlates with events of negative coverage of the Trump campaign.
Indeed, Trump’s first Facebook Live show, titled “Live From Trump Tower,” starred Tomi Lahren, an up-and-coming pro-Trump pundit who earlier this year compared Black Life Matters to the Ku Klux Klan. After the first show aired, Republican anti-Trump activist Ben Howe accused Lahren of serving as an “enabler” of the “alt-right.”
Top Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn, a Russian-born American Jew who defended Trump against claims of anti-Semitism when they surfaced throughout the campaign, also hosted.
To be sure, as his hotel launch pitstop indicates, more media is not the former reality TV star’s only option for his next phase in life. Trump could give up politics altogether, leaving behind a shattered Republican Party. In that event, the far-right activists who took center stage thanks to his run will have to find a new political path after he steps down.
But Trump could also be already laying the groundwork for his own network by complaining so loudly about the mainstream media’s perceived bias against him, Napoli said: “It’s wonderful marketing material for a new network.”
If Trump chooses to disappear back into his Manhattan tower, he will be leaving behind a movement of right-wing Republicans who had hoped he would serve as their voice in the halls of power and in the mainstream public arena. And that movement isn’t going anywhere.
“It’s a very hard genie to get back in the bottle,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and a leading expert on far-right extremism. He warned that in the short run, Trump’s repeated claim that the election process is rigged could lead to outbursts of violence conducted by far-right Trump supporters against minorities. A recent arrest of three Kansas militants who plotted an anti-Islam domestic terrorist attack for the day after the elections shed light on the worst of what pro-Trump forces could do should their candidate lose. According to Department of Justice charges, members of the group, all of whom expressed support for Trump, wanted citizens to compile lists of Muslims in their neighborhood and hoped their planned attack would serve as a “wake-up call” for Americans.
Elsewhere on “alt-right” web chats, other activists have begun to put together lists of journalists who have been critical of Trump. One webpage, laced with anti-Semitic references, suggests retribution for such reporters, ranging from spreading leaflets carrying the image of Pepe the Frog at their homes — the full addresses were provided on the page — to violence.
Potok does not believe Trump would like to position himself as leader of this crowd once the elections are over. “His interest in the extreme right is completely opportunistic,” he said. But this does not mean that the surge in bigotry and Jew hatred will fizzle away even if Trump steps down from the public stage.
“We are likely to see continuing violence directed at minority groups,” Potok said.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman