Donald Trump's recent decision to overhaul his campaign staff suggests that the Republican Party's nominee is already looking past November. But his target might well be a job in the media, not the White House.
Wednesday morning, the candidate confirmed that he was hiring Breitbart News' combative, far-right Chief Executive Steven Bannon to run his campaign. Word also spread that Roger Ailes, recently ousted from Fox News for serial sexual harassment complaints, was advising Trump ahead of the presidential debates. Meanwhile, Paul Manafort, the controversial political consultant, was demoted.
From the standpoint of someone who is hoping to win an election, this reshuffling doesn't make sense. Bannon and Ailes have deep knowledge of conservative media, and are perfectly calibrated to appeal to Trump's red-meat base. But they won't be much help winning over swing voters, and simply don't have the experience necessary to run a U.S. presidential campaign in 2016. (Ailes counseled Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but the game has changed significantly since then.) They don't know how to mobilize voters and they don't know how to do the grunt work of making sure that a campaign organization is up and running in all the key states.
One possible conclusion is that Trump, who recently acknowledged that he might end up taking a "nice long vacation" after November, has realized he is going to lose. He has therefore recruited Ailes and Bannon to lay the groundwork for his backup plan: a new career as a right-wing media personality. Indeed, Vanity Fair published an article in June suggesting that Trump wanted to "monetize" his success as a candidate by turning his voters into viewers.
Trump has more than proved his mettle as an entertainer and provocateur. He entered the campaign as a reality-television star with millions of fans and has an impressive ability to carry large crowds of passionate supporters. He is more than comfortable in front of the television cameras, and he knows how to put on a show.
"Watching the Trump rallies last week . . . it finally made sense to me," said a National Public Radio reporter last week. "He loves the sound and the feel and the emotion in those rallies. …[H]e'll feel the applause, and he'll feel the room start to go there with him, and he'll double down on that because he knows that it's working. It's almost like a stand-up comic trying out like some new jokes or something. If the joke is killing, he's gonna keep saying that joke.
"He's really good."
A year ago, Donald Trump pulled an audience of 24 million viewers for the Fox News Republican presidential debate – making it the most widely viewed nonsporting event on cable in history. Two subsequent Republican debates on CNN registered 23 million and 18 million. Americans tuned in to watch a spectacle, and Trump delivered. When Megyn Kelly excoriated Trump for calling women "pigs" and "slobs," Trump's perfectly irreverent response — "only Rosie O'Donnell" — brought down the house.
Trump would be the highest-level defection from politics to the conservative media, but certainly not the first. Indeed, moving from the world of politics to the world of the media has become much more common in recent decades; it's the new revolving door. Sarah Palin jumped from the vice presidential campaign to Fox News, where she served as an analyst until 2015. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is a regular on Fox News. Former House Republican Joe Scarborough hosts "Morning Joe" on MSNBC.
But Fox News is not an ideal landing pad for Trump: He has alienated both the management and its on-air talent. Besides, Trump has hinted that America needs a new network. He has repeatedly claimed that Fox News does not speak to conservative "non-establishment" voters despite its reputation. And he has blasted every other outlet, including CNN, as being a voice of biased, politically correct liberalism.
Instead of joining Fox, we wouldn't be surprised to see Trump, an aggrieved Ailes and an acerbic Bannon unite to create an alternative media empire – one focused on the same demographic represented at Trump rallies. From his televised throne, Trump could savage the conservative media establishment just as he savaged his Republican rivals in the primary.
And the new empire could well pose a significant threat to Fox. Ailes knows where the bodies are buried at Fox, its personalities and insecurities. Trump could easily win over the demographic that is prone to millenarian fantasies and conspiracy theories – making Fox News look moderate by comparison. Fox News might become the Paul Ryan wing of the Republican media establishment.
So while Republicans may lose the presidency, Trump may still win the election. We've seen Trump steaks, Trump wine. Up next, Trump TV.
Levi Tillemann is a former Obama administration official and a fellow at New America. Julian E. Zelizer is a historian at Princeton University and the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society."