His fellow GOP contenders did not need to undermine the billionaire; he did the job himself. And there's only one person who can fix it
Media commentary by Steve Dunlop
I always enjoyed covering Donald Trump. On a summer day in 1988, when his celebrity was still largely a New York City phenomenon, I was invited down to the East River with a handful of TV journalists to tour his latest acquisition: a $38 million yacht, including a movie theater, a barber chair in the master bedroom, and as the Los Angeles Times wrote, “enough shoe storage space to hold Imelda Marcos' footwear.”
“LIfe is not easy for Donald Trump,” he told me at the time. “Donald Trump fights and kicks and screams at everything he gets.”
I didn’t notice Trump’s odd choice of prepositions until I screened the videotape back in the newsroom. “Donald Trump fights and kicks and screams AT everything he gets”? I played the tape back to make sure I had heard it right. I had.
I wondered if it was a Freudian slip. And after watching The Donald self-immolate at the first GOP presidential debate, I’m convinced that it was.
Donald Trump has been handed the lead in the early polls for the Republican nomination, and he is fighting, kicking and screaming at it. Having gotten the attention of a significant slice of the electorate, he seems to want to push them away.
From a public relations and communications standpoint, he is breaking multiple rules of engagement. Of course, that disregard for convention is precisely at the core of Trump’s appeal in a subset of voters. He is an escape valve for their frustration, and that’s understandable.
But it will not serve his message in the long run. Or even the short run. Republican voters who watched the debate for Fox News, many of them Trump supporters, were overwhelmingly turned off by his bombastics.
“He just crashed and burned,” one member of the focus group told pollster Frank Luntz. “He was mean, he was angry, he had no specifics.”
“He just let me down,” said another Trump supporter. “I just expected him to rise to the occasion and look presidential. He didn’t.”
If Trump were open to some constructive criticism – which would be completely out of his character – here are three tips I’d give him:
· Lose the scowl. It’s off-putting and drives people away from what you want to tell them. There are ways to look serious without looking thuggish.
· Don’t shoot the messenger. The personal branding power of Twitter and Facebook notwithstanding, journalists are and will remain the principal conduit for your message. Taking on Fox’s Megyn Kelly for doing her job is a no-win game.
· Never talk about problems without actions. Trump bragged about not preparing for the debate, and it showed. He sounded off about the problems the country is facing, but he did not effectively offset them with proposed solutions. Even his supporters noticed. “I liked him when I came in here because he wasn’t the politician,” one focus group member told Luntz. “But he skirted around questions better than a lifelong politician ever had.”
We live in a confessional culture, and it is not too late, especially for someone as high profile as Donald Trump, to admit his mistakes in a prominent media venue and turn over a new leaf. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
In the meantime, if you’re looking only for consistency over a long period of time, Donald Trump is your man. He claims to have “evolved” on some political issues, and perhaps he has. But at bottom, he is largely unchanged from the brazen ringmaster I first covered all those years ago.