Former President Donald Trump has lost access to some of the biggest guns in his political arsenal. He can no longer tweet directly to the masses; nor can his Facebook page gin up excitement and ardor among his fans. But starting this week, Trump is firing up his most powerful remaining weapon. The good news is there are ways to blunt its effects.
NBC News' Jonathan Allen reported Tuesday: "Trump returns to the electoral battlefield Saturday as the marquee speaker at the North Carolina Republican Party's state convention. He plans to follow up with several more rallies in June and July to keep his unique political base engaged in the 2022 midterms and give him the option of seeking the presidency again in 2024."
Trump's return to the rally circuit is a major shift in what has so far been a period of stasis and self-imposed exile at Mar-a-Lago, where he accepts supplicants seeking his blessing and sends out press releases on a blog nobody reads. By holding rallies again, even if theoretically for the benefit of other candidates, Trump will potentially regain a major platform. Let's hope the news media has learned its lesson from six years ago.
Trump held just shy of 50 campaign rallies in 2015. Many were aired from beginning to end on cable news, with little fact-checking or real-time contextualizing. The Washington Post's Philip Bump later argued that the first of Trump's rallies to be fully televised, in Phoenix on July 11, 2015, marked the true beginning of his rise.
In those early days, rallies were free content. And the result was a massive surge in earned media for the Trump campaign — coverage granted via interviews and articles in newspapers, on TV and on social media, in contrast to purchased ads. The same amount of screen time, according to a widely cited analysis from The New York Times' Upshot, would have cost somewhere around $2 billion by March 2016.
That same month, CNN President Jeff Zucker was quoted as "beaming" when talking about how much of a boon Trump had been for his outlet:
“These numbers are crazy — crazy,” he said, referring to the ratings. How crazy? Two-hundred-thousand-dollars-per-30-second-spot crazy on debate nights, 40 times what CNN makes on an average night, according to Advertising Age. That’s found money.
The question of how to cover the spectacle of Trump's winding, racist, sexist orations got even more complicated once he won in November 2016. Because he was president, some political reporters argued, his speeches were inherently newsworthy. That attitude began to wane in 2018 as people got used to Trump's shtick. Even Fox News was getting out of the game for a while there.
And Trump's 2020 campaign rallies — indoors and often unmasked, despite a raging pandemic — made it even easier to avoid live coverage. But without a public crisis, who knows what would have happened?
And so we come back to the present. I think that how these first post-presidential rallies are covered will reveal a lot about lessons learned — or not learned. Saturday's rally simply does not need to be covered live.
For one thing, we can assume that Trump will not hold back. I argued last month that Trump's social media silence was giving Republicans the space to work on their long-term projects, including re-engineering state election laws. But Trump's return is likely to push the party line even further — whether GOP leaders want him to or not.
The New York Times' Maggie Haberman reported Tuesday that Trump has been telling people "he expects he will get reinstated by August." That's delusional. But it's something that famed loon, er, lawyer Sidney Powell has been telling other far-right luminaries for months.
And it's exactly what Trump's base wants to hear — directly from the man himself. Steve Bannon, one of the designers of Trump's MAGA movement, recently told NBC News that he's going to be vetting GOP candidates for the midterms on Trump's behalf:
In an interview with NBC News, Bannon said candidates who appear will be pushed first and foremost on what he called "a litmus test" for the GOP: challenging the outcome of the 2020 election.
"So Nov. 3 is not going to go away," Bannon said. "There will not be a Republican that wins a primary for 2022 — not one — that doesn't take the pledge to get to the bottom of Nov. 3."
It may seem tempting to give Trump enough rope to hang himself with. And as Washington Times columnist Byron York said, "If Trump brings this up in public, [it] will likely increase [the] number of Republicans who say they are ready to move on."
But we know that's unlikely. This kind of smug "it could never happen here" thinking helped fuel Trump's rise in the first place. And as isolated as he is right now, there's no reason to catapult him back into the limelight.
There is no newsworthiness in Trump's lies. It's better, smarter and safer to keep Trump in the quarantined space he currently occupies. Nothing good will come from thinking otherwise.