Trump, Biden and The Politics of Consumption: When The Campaign Is Its Own Reward

Ambition is the fuel that makes American politics run: ambition to win office, ambition to hold onto office, ambition to move up the “ladder” of office. But there are other reasons for seeking office. A candidate may want to promote a set of ideas. She may believe that her party deserves representation, even if she’s unlikely to win. She may want to gain notoriety for herself. But there are circumstances in which the campaign is its own reward, for the candidate, for the media, and for political consultants.

Why does Donald Trump run? I don’t know, but it’s reasonable to rule out some of the standard possibilities. He might believe that he could become president, but if so, he’s probably deluded. I cannot imagine anyone appointing Trump to a Cabinet position or (even less likely) selecting him as vice president. Trump does not have clear views on most issues, so it’s hard to classify his campaign as an ideological “crusade.”

When he toyed with being the Reform Party’s nominee in 2000, Trump espoused views essentially opposite to what he holds now. (By contrast, Steve Forbes, the last gazillionaire without political experience to seek the presidency, seemed obsessed with the “flat tax.” Even Ross Perot had pretty fleshed-out views on the budget deficit, foreign trade, and political reform). He talks a lot about immigration, but he’s a newcomer to that issue as well.

Unlike the earlier campaigns of Herman Cain or Mike Huckabee, Trump’s presidential run seems unlikely to help his media “brand.” Instead, he’s lost his television show with NBC and his clothing line with Macy’s. Trump’s long ride as a celebrity was based on an essentially apolitical image as Scrooge McDuck – a fabulously rich man who loved playing into the cartoon. While his presidential campaign may give him a new career as a darling of the conservative-entertainment complex, Trump’s racially incendiary comments probably will make him an untouchable to more controversy-adverse outlets.

The best explanation for Donald Trump’s candidacy is that he enjoys running for president, and the attention that the process gives him. The campaign is its own reward.

The Consultants Who Work For Trump. Trump has not received much backing from Republican Party insiders. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) showed up at the Trump rally in Mobile earlier this month, but did not endorse the Babbling Billionaire. Sessions, at least, has an obvious reason to ally himself with Trump: he is perhaps the GOP’s leading advocate of restricting immigration. Otherwise, Republican Party actors have been hostile or aloof.

But there has been one exception. Donald Trump has been able to replace his usual hangers-on with a set of Republican political professionals. Corey Lewandowski, previously of Americans for Prosperity, now serves as Trump’s campaign manager. Sam Clovis quit as Rick Perry’s Iowa chair to become national co-chair for Trump. Chuck Laudner, who ran Rick Santorum’s Iowa campaign in 2012, will serve as Trump’s state director.

There are many things that motivate political consultants. They want to advance their careers. They want their party to win. They want their ideology to prevail, both within the party and outside. They want to make money. Only one of those motivations probably applies to Trump’s new friends. Trump seems like a terrible general-election nominee. While working for Trump might be a way for some lesser-known consultants to gain attention, it probably would alienate as many potential employers as it would attract. (In general, Trump’s hires seem distinctly B-team-ish, especially for someone so famous and so rich). All three of these new hires are contradicting previously stated views. A Koch Brothers protégé is working for an avowed protectionist. A religious conservative is working for a thrice-married gambling tycoon who loves to “work blue.” Earlier this summer, Clovis expressed deep skepticism of Trump’s avowed conservatism and offense at his disparaging remarks about John McCain. Trump’s money might best explain their willingness to sign up. From time immemorial, political consultants have loved self-funders.

The Media. While Trump loves to feud with the mass media, his rise in polls matches up nicely with his disproportionate share of press coverage. Why does he occupy so much space on our TV and computer screens? He gets clicks! He gets viewers! No wonder why Trump supporters so often sound more like fans of a reality-show star than like backers of a political candidate.

The Conservative-Entertainment Complex. I’ve commented before on Donald Trump’s relationship with the Republican “partisan press.” Despite not actually being all that conservative, Trump feeds them the “affect” they crave. Trump has alienated some elements of the conservative media: those who care about policy, those who want a strong Republican nominee, those who shy away from racially tinged appeals. Instead, his strength has been with his fellow trash-talkers like Ann Coulter, the writers at Breitbart, and the yakkers of AM radio – broadly speaking, the trashier side of the conservative “outrage industry.” (Fox News falls somewhere in between). While this crowd has always harped on illegal immigration, they probably care less about Trump’s policy views than his outrageous personality, which drives the clicks and listeners. Trump’s willingness to push racial and gender “hot buttons” fits perfectly with the business model of the Michael Savages and Rush Limbaughs.

What’s Up With Joe? We are seeing another round of speculation that Vice President Joseph Biden might enter the presidential race. I’m quite skeptical that he will actually jump in, and it seems like Democratic insiders feel the same way. Biden might be interested in running as a tribute to his late son, and I imagine many in his inner circle genuinely think of him as a potential president. But who else wants to talk about Biden? Molly Ball of The Atlantic probably best explains Biden-mentum,“ spun out of thin air by bored reporters and underemployed Democratic operatives in the August dead zone of presidential politics.” Biden speculation is a win-win for these two groups. If he jumps in, the journalists have a great story and the operatives might get jobs. If he doesn’t, the journalists will have already produced the clickbait, and the hacks will have gotten some publicity.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.