Donald Trump plays the media like a bagpipe -- droning, loud, full of hot air and impossible to ignore.
On Tuesday night, after winning primaries in Michigan and Mississippi, Mr. Trump managed to steal nearly an hour of television time on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN with a performance rich in hubris, insult and prevarication. The venue was a swanky golf resort somewhere in Florida. The performance was like an ad on the Home Shopping Network topped off with a press conference run by a generalissimo in a banana republic.
Mr. Trump started by rebutting Mitt Romney's critique of his business failures. Beside the 10 American flags adorning the stage were scores of bottles of Trump Water and a stack of Trump Steaks. Mr. Romney alleged that those two entrepreneurial endeavors have gone kaput, but Mr. Trump insisted the fact he could show them on TV proves his beef and bottled water businesses still thrive (if selling them only at his own properties qualifies as thriving). Then the candidate held up a copy of Trump magazine to show that, despite what Mr. Romney said, it still exists (although it is doubtful the publication can be found on any magazine rack at any airport, drug store or mini mart in the USA).
Mr. Romney, like Marco Rubio, also charged that Trump University -- The Donald's expensive series of real estate seminars -- was a complete scam. Mr. Trump took time to refute that, though it was less a refutation than a con man's evasion. The disturbing facts about the bogus "university" are driving a federal fraud case in which Mr. Trump is likely to be an unwilling witness.
Following the display of products,Mr. Trump took questions from a contingent of reporters who were intermingled with an elite crowd of expensively dressed Trump supporters. Most of the questions were softballs, but there was one query Mr. Trump didn't like. He belittled the reporter and refused to give an answer. The well-heeled crowd cheered.
Watching on television, it was impossible to hear the questions or identify the questioners. Mr. Trump did not give reporters access to a microphone, which allowed him total command of the situation. Having loyalists surround the members of the press corps provided extra intimidation.
Mr. Trump chatted at length about his good poll numbers, his excellent prospects in upcoming primaries and the "lies" and inadequacies of his competitors for the GOP nomination. What he did not speak about, beyond his monotonous riff on building a gigantic border wall, was issues, ideals or the concerns of the beleaguered working-class voters who are his wildest fans. When, at long last, Mr. Trump finally concluded, Fox News host Megyn Kelley looked gobsmacked as she asked, "What was that all about?"
What that was about was Mr. Trump hijacking the media once again. He was able to spread his message -- "I'm a tough, truth-talking rich guy who has had huge success in business, so I can run this country better than any weak, bought-off politician" -- without interruption or challenge. He hogged prime time and blocked out Hillary Clinton's own post-primary speech. Even Democrat-loving MSNBC stayed with Mr. Trump instead of switching over to Hillary because Mr. Trump is so unpredictable that no TV producer wants to risk missing the man's next news-making outburst.
In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, political correspondent Matt Taibbi provides a good insight into Mr. Trump's command of free media. He writes that Mr. Trump is the first candidate "to realize the weakness in the system, which is that the watchdogs in the political media can't resist a car wreck. The more he insults the press, the more they cover him: He's pulling 33 times as much coverage on the major networks as his next-closest GOP competitor, and twice as much as Hillary."
One may wonder whether Mr. Trump is a Machiavellian who ingeniously designed his tactics for dealing with the press or if he is just an idiot savant with natural media skills, but, either way, there is no question that it is working. Working so well, in fact, that no one can figure out how to stop him.