Will the media make Donald Trump the “shadow president” of 2021?

Our friend Matt Lewis posted a rather short bit of commentary at the Daily Beast this week addressing the title question. Matt’s no fan of President Trump (to put it mildly) but he is bringing up a couple of valid points. He’s asking if the mainstream media will return to some sense of “normalcy” after Joe Biden is sworn in or if they will continue to feature Donald Trump on a running basis for the next year, turning him into some sort of “shadow president.” And he quotes a media executive who openly admits why the President received the volume and type of coverage that he has all through his term. In short, Donald Trump was very good for business.

There’s a dirty little secret between Donald Trump and the media that at this point isn’t much of a secret. A symbiosis exists between us; we use him and he uses us. Now that his presidency is mercifully taking its last gasp, can we quit him and return to a modicum of sanity and normalcy? Starting in January, can we string together a few Trump-free news cycles? More to the point: can we quit taking his bait? Or are we doomed to cover Trump’s antics as a sort of shadow presidency?

Doing so will be tempting. Even as Trump has sought to undermine the media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” we have laughed all the way to the bank. This was true almost from the beginning. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” admitted Les Moonves, the network’s CEO, during the 2016 presidential campaign. “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Referring to the quote from Les Moonves, I would argue that there was a significant difference between the “business” of covering Donald Trump as a possible president during the 2016 campaign and covering him as an actual president for the past four years. Examples abound. One of the easiest to identify was the coverage that candidate Donald Trump received from the Morning Joe crew on MSNBC. All through the campaign, they couldn’t hide their fascination with him. Trump had a direct line to Mika and Joe’s cell phones and called in several times a week where he was given nearly endless air time.

Then the point came where Trump was suddenly persona non grata on that set. But that really didn’t happen until the reality of President Trump set in and he began flipping over the tables of the money changes in the MSM. Even then, however, it’s not as if the MSNBC team could stop talking about him. After all, how do you not cover the sitting president? But the coverage was universally negative and disparaging from that point on.

When it comes to 2021, I wouldn’t expect much to change unless Donald Trump himself wishes for it to do so. Part of it is the financial incentive that Moonves talked about. Love him or hate him, Trump coverage means ratings and ratings mean advertiser dollars. But that only works if Trump is doing things to make news. If he launches a tour of the Middle East and is regularly meeting with foreign leaders and giving speeches peppered with hot takes, the MSM will follow along. And it will be precisely because that’s what Trump wants. But if he returns to his estate in Florida and either goes back to work in his office or hits the links, offering no public comments, what would there be for the press to cover? His golf scores? The next hotel he opens?

If Donald Trump goes the former route he will be a huge thorn in the side of the Biden administration, soaking up news cycles and sucking some of the oxygen out of the room. If he decides he’s done with the swamp, Matt might get his wish for a return to “normal.” But I wouldn’t expect politics to follow suit. Even if Donald Trump is done with politics, he’s had a blistering effect on the swamp. Others will rise to fill the vacuum his departure from the stage would create. I’ve said this here before, but it bears repeating. Donald Trump wasn’t the cause of all this disruption. He was a symptom.

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