First Donald Trump got an endorsement from the tabloids. Now he’s getting a mouthpiece.
The 2016 campaign hadn’t even begun when America’s supermarket tabloids picked their guy. “New Poll: Donald Trump’s The One!” the National Enquirer breathlessly announced in February 2015, long before the real estate developer was even a punchline in the political conversation.
As Trump’s unlikely run got underway that summer, the Enquirer kept rolling the drums, even publishing a September 2015 three-part series by Trump titled, imaginatively, “My Life Story.” Meanwhile, the tabloid treated Hillary Clinton’s White House dream as doomed from the start, the hope of a “desperate and deteriorating” candidate who, depending on which story you read, had only six months to live, or was headed to jail for covering up Vince Foster’s 1993 “murder,” or was going “behind bars for life” over her email scandal. The Enquirer accelerated in this new political direction as 2016 arrived, running a two-part soft interview with Trump and hammering his closest political rival, Ted Cruz, as a philanderer whose father was “linked” to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The tabs had covered politicians before, sure: Back in 1987, the Enquirer helped scuttle Gary Hart’s presidential ambitions when it published a cover photo of Donna Rice sitting on his lap, and in a 2008 series, it threw a saddle on John Edwards’ presidential bid and rode it into the ground. But the tabloids’ thrust had almost always been pure scandal. Politics was only the backdrop. That changed this time, as the tabloids—especially the Enquirer—fixated on the presidential campaign, sometimes in oddly substantive ways. Trump, Clinton or one of the other presidential candidates appeared on the Enquirer cover more than 20 times in 2016, an editorial trajectory that shows no sign of ending with 2017. “How Trump Will Fix Spy Showdown” heralds a cover line in the January 16 issue. The tab routinely depicted Clinton as crazed, diseased, near death, an ISIS-supporting traitor, a liar, a blackmailer, corrupt and a member of a crime family. The Enquirer’s sister tabloid, the Globe, contributed its own anti-Hillary salvos, claiming she was hooked on pills, crippled with multiple sclerosis, relying on a body double to conceal her illness and had suffered a “shocking crackup.”
As 2016 began, the tabloids celebrated favorite son Trump at every turn. The Enquirer endorsed him in March 2016—one of vanishingly few publications anywhere to do so—and stacked its pages with praise. In its February 29, 2016, issue, the tabloid toted up the shameful secrets the candidates were hiding. His secret? “[H]e has greater support and popularity than even he’s admitted to!” the Enquirer reported. During the campaign, Trump returned the affection by saying the Enquirer ought to be “respected” and asking why it didn't win a Pulitzer Prize for its Edwards stories. The Globe likewise pushed the Trump candidacy. It puffed him up with a story titled, “Don’t Mess With Donald Trump!”—and it threw spitballs at the Vatican on his behalf in “Donald Trump Schools the Pope on Vital American Security.” This open embrace of a candidate was new, and people noticed, with pieces appearing in New York magazine, the Washington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the Daily Beast and elsewhere.
It’s easy to imagine that tabloids don’t matter; the Enquirer is a relatively small voice in the media kingdom, with a weekly circulation of only 342,071, down from the 5.9 million it commanded in the 1970s. But that misses the importance of the constant cultural background noise it adds to American life: There are 37,000 supermarkets in America, with an average of about 10 checkout stands each, and many stands feature a wire rack displaying the Enquirer, the Globe, often the company’s other tab, the National Examiner, and celebrity magazines. According to an industry study, American households make an average of 1.5 trips to the supermarket each week. Every customer passes by the checkout stand, which means that even people who never purchase a tabloid still absorb the ambient headlines, and those headlines can shape their view of the world.
It’s easy to imagine that tabloids don’t matter, but that misses the importance of the constant cultural background noise they add to American life.
After Trump’s November victory, the tabloids took a predictable bow: “Pundits, polls, politicians, the press—everyone else was WRONG and we were RIGHT AGAIN, AGAIN AND AGAIN!” crowed the Enquirer in its November 28, 2016, issue. “We had our finger on the pulse of the nation all along.” Instead of letting her retire from the field of combat, the tabloids reloaded for Clinton; the Enquirer had her fleeing for Qatar or Nigeria to escape Trump’s prosecution; the Globe reported the “indictment” of Hillary, Bill and Chelsea.
In the weeks since the election, the tabloids have redirected their energy yet again, in a genuinely surprising way: policy. “SUCCESS IN JUST 36 DAYS,” the Enquirer trumpeted in late December, touting a bullet-pointed list of Trump’s policy wins, including Air Force One, the Iran nuclear deal, global trade and other topics not often seen on the Enquirer’s cover. The Enquirer closed out December by announcing: TRUMP ALREADY RESTORING DIGNITY TO OVAL OFFICE, fully 22 days before he was even scheduled to take the oath. As a media machine, the Trump administration is poised to be like nothing we’ve seen—a Twitter-fueled, cable-news-obsessed juggernaut with its own direct channels to supporters, and at open war with the mainstream media. And the tabloid press—the ankle-biting, scandal-mongering attack dog scourge of the establishment—is becoming one of its propaganda arms. What’s going on?
In another era, Trump’s history of tomcatting, unscrupulous business dealings and grandiose tastes would have made him a perfect tabloid villain. But in that era, all the tabs would not have been owned by one person, who happened to be a friend of Trump. That person is David Pecker, CEO of American Media, the New York-based publisher that owns the Enquirer, the other tabloids and Radaronline, its Web tabloid. The two worked together in the late 1990s on Trump Style, a magazine for guests of the Trump properties, when Pecker was a magazine executive at Hachette Filipacchi Magazines. Pecker acknowledges their personal closeness, and reports have documented what looks like a significant amount of back-scratching. According to an anonymously sourced article in the Daily News last summer, Trump intervened with Pecker when his disciple Omarosa Manigault threatened to sue the Enquirer, an allegation both men deny. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Pecker’s company bought and then spiked an exclusive about Trump’s alleged 10-month-long affair with a Playboy centerfold model, which began in 2006 and extended into 2007. Trump was already married to Melania, to whom their son Barron was born in March 2006, which would mean—if the story were true—that he had been carrying on with the model when his son was just an infant. The contract gave American Media exclusive rights in perpetuity to the model’s story, which she had expected would be published, according to the Journal. It never was. Purchasing a story just to bury it is a rare move called “catch and kill” in tabloidworld. Trump, for his part, denied the affair.
Now, instead of taking Trump down a few pegs, Pecker’s magazines are offering rich, soft-focus lifestyle features on America’s new royal family, while going after his opponents with a vitriol not even seen in coverage of Mel Gibson. You don’t have to be a Hillary lover to be repulsed by the Enquirer’s coverage of her; the sicknesses the Enquirer has attached to Clinton would fill a medical encyclopedia—muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, endometriosis and brain damage from her concussion. She suffers from obesity (289 pounds), brain cancer and mental disorders, and has had two strokes, the Enquirer claims.
The Trump family, meanwhile, dominates the January 2, 2017, Enquirer cover; inside, the tab gives the family the most generous coverage about their interests. For tabloid readers accustomed to stories about the sordid lives of the famous, this marks a complete editorial relocation. It’s as though the Trumps are the home team and the Enquirer the house organ for a season that will last at least four years. In this, you could say they were embracing the earlier American gossip tradition of fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen. In a recent academic study, gossip historian Anne Helen Petersen urges us to think of gossip “as a spectrum, with scandalous gossip residing on the left while fannish gossip exists on the right.” Both classes of publications create “‘imagined’ and real communities of readers,” she writes, “in which standards of morality are constructed, affirmed and challenged.” The reader of fan magazines, Petersen writes, “feels affection and devotion to a figure and, presumably, does not wish that devotion to be challenged.”
That’s as good a way to think about Trump’s base as any political pundit has found. Typical Trump voters may not literally be tabloid readers, but, like tabloid readers, they’ve compartmentalized their feelings about the man. Pulling the lever for Trump meant they were willing to overlook his sexual indiscretions, be they physical or verbal. His underhanded business dealings? His incitements of violence to crowds at his rallies? Little of this matters to them, and little of it matters to the tabloids, either.
Some consider Enquirer readers representative of the emerging “post-truth” era, reliant on their own beliefs and indifferent to the facts accepted by the mainstream. But a better way to look at Enquirer readers might be as a “pre-truth” group, drawn to arguments based on pure emotional appeal. Ted Cruz makes such a perfect tabloid villain because he looks like one, because he went to Princeton and Harvard, and because he seems unimpressed by anybody not named Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton, too, is a paid-in-full member of the American elite: Wellesley, Yale, the Senate and global foundation muckety-muck. Going into 2016, the tabloids already had marked her as their campaign heavy.
Trump, on the other hand, could be cast as the perfect proletarian candidate: patriotic, plain-talking (or plain double-talking) and a nativist. Trump, being rich and educated at the Wharton School, isn’t an obvious ideological fit for these Enquirer readers. But when he wolfs down fast food or speaks in broken sentences, praises his tacky palaces as beautiful, or unexpectedly takes a vulgar turn in the middle of a speech, he ends up declaring a kind of class solidarity with a set of people who could never afford his resorts. His penchant for glitter, big hair, big things in general and bad grammar, and his disdain for all thing refined (his favorite musical is Evita), makes him highly representative of Rust Belt culture. I grew up with many of the people who voted for Trump in the primaries and the general election. They can smell condescension at the parts-per-billion level. With Trump, they don’t even sniffle.
Like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, Trump can bridge sociological divides, and that gives him wide appeal among the Enquirer crowd. He certainly sounds more sincere on the issues that appeal to middle- and lower-class voters than Clinton sounds, who pronounced herself their champion in speech after unconvincing speech. Where Clinton was convincing—her policy ideas, her grasp of issues—Trump simply didn’t care, aggressively pandering to voters who believe in simple, turn-key solutions to whatever foreign policy, environment, crime and employment problems that exist. In his worldview, there is a tabloid solution to every ill facing America. All he asks is for citizens to swallow.
As a business move, the tabloids’ Trumpian turn appears to have worked: Pecker says the “pro-Trump and anti-Hillary” covers do 23 percent better on the newsstand for the Enquirer.
As a journalistic move—and yes, you can call the Enquirer journalism—there’s something bigger going on. Overtly partisan coverage is hardly noteworthy in 2016. What is noteworthy is the kind of partisanship the tabloids have exhibited. Their attacks on Trump’s opponents have been, no other word for it, propagandistic in their approach: They’ve followed his lead in constructing blatantly false or half-true assertions and circulating them in banner headlines.
All the hallmarks of classic propaganda appear in the newly politicized tabloids. First, there is the pure volume of the malicious bunk they churn out. The tabs construct wild story after wild story that “entertains, confuses, and overwhelms the audience,” as one recent report described modern Russian propaganda technique. Like the Enquirer, propagandists are rarely content to push a single fabrication. The greater the number, the greater likelihood one will take root. The Enquirer’s harping on Clinton’s health is a good example. Had she suffered from half of the conditions and ailments the Enquirer had claimed, she would have been in intensive care instead of on the campaign trail. But classic propaganda makes little attempt to be consistent with observable facts, relying instead on volume and insistence to overwhelm its subjects and on their willingness to believe what’s spread.
All the hallmarks of classic propaganda appear in the newly politicized tabloids.
Like propagandists, tabs make up bizarre yet plausible stuff faster than the fact-checkers can knock it down—assuming that the fact-checkers care about tracking tabloid outrageousness in the first place. In a Rand Corporation study of Russian propaganda published last year, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews write about the “rapid, continuous and repetitive” quality of the propaganda, which is a good descriptor of the kinds of bogus campaign stories the Enquirer and Globe published. Effective propaganda, they tell us, drowns out other messages, and repeated exposure increases the acceptance among the receptive over time.
The best propagandists always remember to fold a dash of the plausible into the mix, and here the tabloids excel. Like most people in their late 60s, Clinton shows her age. She has her ailments and conditions, and maybe she carries a few more pounds than she should. And then there was that fainting spell during her bout with pneumonia. Upon this foundation of her normality, an ambitious tabloid propagandist can float a thousand invented maladies, as the Enquirer did, needing only a few claims to take anchor and lead readers to believe she’s a terminal case.
The same goes for the Enquirer inflations about Cruz’s alleged affairs, his father’s “links” to the Kennedy assassination and Clinton’s criminal exposure in the wake of the email scandal. In the Enquirer’s malicious hands, the now retired, world-renowned doctor Ben Carson becomes a “bungling surgeon” and Jeb Bush becomes a “cheater” who is involved in the drug trade. Propagandists often rely on eliciting emotion—fear, pity, disgust, happiness, anger, frustration—to make the sale, and here the Enquirer excels again with its hysterical coverage of illegal immigration and its assertion that Muslim spies have infiltrated the CIA. Propagandists simplify the complicated, and here again, the Enquirer takes the cue. One cover line states that “Plugging Leaks Will Destroy ISIS!” Another that building the wall will “Smash Cartels’ $60 Billion Drug & Trafficking Business!” Still another that “Apple’s 4.5 Million Jobs [are] Coming Home!” All thanks, of course, to Donald J. Trump.
The Enquirer agrees that it has become more political but rejects the notion that it’s a Trump mouthpiece. Through a spokesperson, Enquirer Editor-in-Chief Dylan Howard said the paper is just serving its readers: Surveys showed they wanted to know more about Trump than the other candidates. “Rest assured, no one influences the publication’s coverage other than me and my editors,” he said.
It would overstate the tabloids’ power by several magnitudes to say they primed the country for Trump victory. But put them together with the Drudge Report, which has hyped Enquirer stories; Sean Hannity’s program on Fox News Channel, which touted an Enquirer story in the late days of the campaign; and Breitbart, which toes the Trump line, and you’ve got the makings of a new, all-American misinformation bloc. The tabloids’ lockstep behind Trump may be the greatest aid and comfort a major publication has given to a presidential candidate since the 1936 campaign, when Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick turned the 17th floor of the Tribune Tower over to 100 supporters of Alf Landon to work the phone banks and ran headlines like “Moscow Orders Reds in U.S. to Back Roosevelt.” Meanwhile, Tribune operators answered the phone in countdown style—“Only 97 days left to save your country”—until Election Day.
The ability of the Enquirer and its weird sister tabloids to feed word-of-mouth and other organizations in the mediasphere—not just the Hillary-hating Breitbart and Drudge, but the mainstream newspaper, Web and television outlets—makes these outlets a new kind of political asset for the 45th president. Trump says something, and the tabloids echo it first and amplify it to the distortion point later. A Trump enemy appears on the horizon—somebody like Cruz or Bush—and the tabs go after him.
In the quaint days of American politics, politicians jousted mostly over spin or ideology. But in the Trump era, the battle has become one about “facts,” which in his case aren’t facts at all but forms of magical thinking. Already Trump has asserted that “millions of people voted illegally,” a position that he does not retreat from when the media—and other credible sources—refute that claim. In late December, Trump took credit for Sprint’s plans to add 5,000 jobs in the United States, when the additions were really part of an earlier decision. He called for national unity after the election out of one side of his mouth while attacking the media for allegedly inciting protests out of the other. Like the propagandists, he intends to erode the public’s ability to distinguish what is true from what is fantasy. The tabloid echo chamber becomes one more mirror in the funhouse, reflecting not just his opinions, but his proffered version of reality.
The tabloids will never take the New York Times’ position when it comes to setting the national agenda, but in the Web era, you don’t need a credible platform to start shaping the news. The cable networks have learned to crossfade from straight news to something more speculative and conspiratorial, shooting the tabloids’ pre-truth serum right into the civic bloodstream. Instead of thinking of the tabs as purveyors of celebrity dish and gross-out stories, try thinking of them as adjuncts to Trump’s Twitter feed—provocative and dubious material that unfailingly steals the scene, and is no longer safe to ignore.