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Trump loses his media touch just when he needs it most | COMMENTARY

President Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, June, 20, 2020. The hall, which seats 19,000, was less than one-third full for his first rally in three months, according to Tulsa Fire Department figures.
President Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, June, 20, 2020. The hall, which seats 19,000, was less than one-third full for his first rally in three months, according to Tulsa Fire Department figures. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

What a time for Donald Trump to lose his groove.

Just as the 2020 campaign enters its home stretch and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is getting a little help from friends like former President Barack Obama, Trump is floundering at the one thing he did as well as any president since Ronald Reagan.

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As much as I disliked candidate Trump and loathed what he was saying on the campaign trail in 2016, I had to admire the game-changing media campaign the Republican ran during that presidential race. He found the sweet spot between analog and digital in that transitional media moment, regularly hammering Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on Twitter, while commanding huge chunks of free airtime on the 24/7 cable news channels with his ability to draw large audiences in live interviews that routinely transgressed traditional boundaries of political conversation on TV. He was more entertaining with his loud, reality-TV blather, bluster and B.S. than any other political candidate and that, sadly, was enough to win him millions of viewers and votes without spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads.

Unlike his hybrid use of TV and social media, I didn’t appreciate Trump’s rallies as another form of media performance until after his election. I came to understand, in fact, that rallies might have been his smartest use of media. They were at any rate the third pillar of his media power — and surely the least understood and appreciated.

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But, oh my, how all of that has changed in the past few months. Losing his touch only starts to suggest the vengeance with which the media gods who so blessed his candidacy four years ago have turned on Trump.

Trump’s rally in Tulsa June 20th was a media embarrassment of major proportions. As much analysis as it has generated, I think we have yet to appreciate what a landmark moment it was in the decline of Trump.

It wasn’t just that Trump claimed more than a million persons had RSVP’d for the event and yet, in the end, the Tulsa Fire Department said there were only 6,200 who actually attended the rally in a hall that holds 19,200. It wasn’t just the fact that Trump generated almost none of the excitement and energy onstage that in the past made his rallies such deep communal experiences for some followers. What made it seem watershed to me was watching this performer who could once hold the cameras and the hall with such arrogant assurance and ease struggling to hit even the old easy notes he had been playing for years, let alone the high ones he sometimes reached when all the synapses were firing onstage. This was a performer who had lost the magic, and was trying to hold his nerve in the face of that realization.

While different people will read the text of Trump’s performance in Tulsa in different ways based on their own backgrounds, my reading found some corroboration in videos that went viral of Trump walking down the steps from his Marine One helicopter and across the South Lawn upon returning to the White House from the rally.

To me, it was a backstage snapshot of an over-the-hill Las Vegas lounge singer after his comeback performance bombed. The detail that will make this image iconic is the crumpled Make America Great Again hat in Trump’s hand. The hat is the powerful symbol of his connection during the 2016 election to the deep resentment among some who felt disrespected and dispossessed by the Washington elite. But in his post-rally walk to the White House, it’s just a red piece of cloth stripped of all its cultural potency, which the weary Trump hardly seems aware of holding.

Beyond the rally itself, the memes and sarcastic Twitter conversations surrounding the video illustrate the way Trump has lost control of the social media pillar of his messaging as well.

Video of the walk was labeled “Walk of Shame” in social media and set to music on Twitter with such songs as R.E.M.‘s “Everybody Hurts” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” That kind of derisive contextualization mocked Trump the way he had so successfully and cruelly mocked his opponents in 2016. Twitter, his go-to medium, has been turned against him more and more in recent months.

And it’s not just users of social media who are turning on Trump. Last month, Twitter itself fact-checked Trump tweets for the first time. The social media platform gave two Trump tweets about mail-in ballots a fact-check label.

Trump claimed in the tweets that mail-in ballots are “substantially fraudulent” and will lead to a “rigged” election. Those are reckless, unsubstantiated statements that can undermine faith in our democracy and the November election results. Twitter added a label and link to each of the tweets saying, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots.” Clicking on the links took users to articles by such outlets as CNN and The Washington Post, which provide facts about mail-in voting that challenge Mr. Trump’s false claims.

An outraged Trump tried to bully CEO Jack Dorsey by going on Twitter and claiming the platform is “interfering with the 2020 election” and “stifling free speech.” He used the threat of regulation to try to cow Dorsey, a move the president has used with great success in bullying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But Dorsey stood his ground even when Trump signed an executive order on May 28 titled “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.” While I am no fan of Twitter, I applaud Dorsey and his platform for trying to rein in Trump’s ability to lie and libel his opponents. Here’s hoping Twitter keeps “interfering” in the 2020 election this way. While 24/7 cable news is often blamed for all the free time given to Trump, no medium is more complicit in Trump’s 2016 media success than Twitter.

Cable news TV also has clamped down on Trump compared to 2016. Neither MSNBC nor CNN carried his Tulsa rally in full. And even Fox News, Trump’s favorite channel, has come under fire from the president for criticism of him by show hosts like Chris Wallace and polls that show the president trailing Biden.

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But Trump has lost his edge on TV as well lately. Cable and network television were giving Trump large blocks of time this spring for daily press briefings on COVID-19. But instead of putting medical and public health experts front and center to give viewers information needed to be safe, Trump used the airtime as he had used arena stages at his rallies before COVID-19 shut them down: ranting against Democrats, attacking the press, exaggerating accomplishments and flat-out lying about the risks of the virus.

After the mockery and outrage that followed some dangerously ignorant comments about the possibility of injecting household disinfectants like Lysol to kill the virus, even Trump seemed to understand that his daily TV performances were hurting rather than helping his chances of getting reelected. So much for TV, his third pillar of media mastery.

In the end, Trump’s detached-from-reality comments and false promises on COVID-19 cannot compete with screen after screen of statistics on infection and deaths and panel after panel of experts urging everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing while the president and his followers do otherwise. Trump is too vain to understand that he is no match for COVID-19, and the evidence is all over media 24/7 every day.

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Like social media, cable TV is now Trump’s enemy instead of ally. And the turnaround comes as the president is performing at his worst in the medium.

At one point in 2016, candidate Trump hit a slump in his media performance, but he didn’t have social media and cable TV turning on him as he did now. And he wasn’t our president with a deadly opponent like COVID-19 battering the nation, making his ineptitude a life and death matter for us. I wrote about the media gods turning on Trump and him losing his mojo that summer, but predicted he might get it back at the GOP Convention in July. And, indeed, he did.

As dangerous as betting against Trump can be, I do not see that happening again this summer.

Someone could almost feel sorry for a figure who looked as defeated as Trump did walking back into the White House after his Tulsa rally.

But that someone would not be me.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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