“Men with nothing to lose will stop at nothing to win” is a quote from a brilliant book, Chaos Monkeys, by Antonio Garcia Martinez. The author was writing about entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, but when I read the line over this past weekend weekend I had an “ah-ha”moment. President-elect Trump.
I’m an eighty-something, preppie, Ivy League, ex media executive and former journalism professor who lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan who supported first Elizabeth Warren, then Bernie Sanders and finally Hillary Clinton. I also teach a graduate Media Ethics course at the New School in New York. It would be hard to find a more blue-blooded, liberal, bubble-wrapped elitist who up until Tuesday evening was confident Hillary Clinton had a lock on the election.
When Trump won, I was shocked, shocked that democracy was going on in America. Having spent my life selling, managing and teaching about the media, I thought I understood the media and how it had been manipulated, hijacked and exploited by Donald Trump, but two quotes from Chaos Monkeys were epiphanies: “To a startup, media attention is like sex. There are two types: good … and better” and “Men with nothing to lose will stop at nothing to win.” I realized that the media was a partner in the election of Donald Trump.
First, let’s put the definition of “the media” in perspective. It is as broad as the definition of “the American people.” The media is an amorphous, general, broad categorization that has vastly different meanings to different people. The media to an Ivy League Upper East Sider in Manhattan might consist of the New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic and FORBES. To a working-class electrician in Ohio the media might be Country Music radio station TheBull (106.1), BuzzFeed and Breitbart News on Facebook. The media has as many different meanings as there are people who listen, read, watch or use it.
Media consumption is fragmented and polarized. People like their favorite radio station, but hate “the media,” which is a pejorative term that means “messages that don’t reflect my bias.” Some Ohioans may read the Youngstown Vindicator, but not read the New York Times and perceive it to be “the liberal media” that did not support their candidate, which makes them hate the NYT and, by association, hate “the media.”
Donald Trump played on this media hatred and gave the haters what they wanted, vitriol against “the media,” among other targets of his verbal kicks and punches.
Many pundits and critics of the media also faulted “the media” for its horse race-esque coverage of the primaries and the election. Many people blamed “the media” for caring more about who has ahead than about who had ideas of substance.
These critics were right. The media did cover the primaries and election like they were a race or a game, but the media got the game wrong. The election was not a horse race, which has written rules. In California, for example, “interference” is defined as “bumping, impeding, forcing, floating in or out or otherwise causing any other horse to lose stride, ground, momentum or position.” Even the UFC’s ultimate fighting game has rules: No head butting, no eye gouging, no biting, no hair pulling, no fish hooking and no groin attacks of any kind.
Remember in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Butch (Paul Newman) said before a pending knife fight, “Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out” and Harvey said, “Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!”
In politics there are no rules except the Constitutional right to free speech. This election was a knife fight. Trump knew that and Clinton didn’t. Butch Cassidy won the fight by kicking Harvey in the groin before the fight started and won. There were no rules. Trump kicked his primary opponents and Clinton in the groin after the fight started and won.
Trump broke all the rules that his opponents and the majority of mainstream media outlets assumed existed in politics. Trump’s opponents and the media were wrong. In politics there are no rules. It’s a knife fight, and Trump, who was already a celebrity and a multi-billionaire, had nothing to lose, so stopped at nothing to win.