In his trashy gossip threat at a television host Friday, President Donald Trump showed he isn't playing by any known political rules. These are instead the lowbrow — and venerable — rules of gossip, long part of Trump's arsenal and an old-school source of American power.
It started on Thursday when Trump wrote two tweets that have attracted near-universal scorn. "I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don't watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came ... to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year's Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!"
In response, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, penned an op-ed for the Washington Post titled “Donald Trump is not well.” In the piece, they allege that members of Trump’s staff had approached them earlier in the year, warning that the National Enquirer would publish a negative story about the cohosts' relationship unless they “begged the president to have the story spiked.” (The two announced their engagement on May 4, after months of swirling rumors about a potential relationship; both had been married when they started the show.) The Enquirer published the story on June 2.
On Friday’s Morning Joe, the pair elaborated on their side of the story, with Scarborough claiming that three different Trump staffers “at the very top of the administration” had called them. After Morning Joe, Trump again took to Twitter to suggest that Scarborough had, indeed, called him to ask that the story disappear; Scarborough countered that he had texts and phone records that will prove that Trump staffers had called him — and that Scarborough himself had not spoken to Trump in “many months.”
(The Enquirer issued a statement this morning, declaring “at no time did we threaten either Joe or Mika or their children in connection with our reporting on the story. We have no knowledge of any discussions between the White House and Joe and Mika about our story, and absolutely no involvement in those discussions.”)
Written out this way, the feud between Trump and the hosts of Morning Joe feels endlessly complicated. But apart from Trump and Scarborough’s trading of accusations on Twitter, it’s an old-school scandal. And it was allegedly handled with the same blunt tools used in scandals of the last century, tools that Trump — like others who dominated the tabloids through the end of the 20th century — had long relied on to “encourage” those around him to do his bidding or otherwise maintain the Trump message. The difference, of course, is that Trump, like other celebrities, used those tools when he was a private citizen in the 1990s and 2000s. They worked, in large part, because he was a powerful — if often belligerent and petty — figure. Now, he’s president, and while his inclinations toward belligerence and pettiness have increased, his power, ironically has not.
To understand why Trump would turn to the National Enquirer, you have to understand two things: first, Trump’s furor with the news media, especially televised, cable news media, and second, his relationship with the National Enquirer. As many have noted, Trump’s understanding of the media and its power has remained the same since the 1990s. He loves the tabloids — the Enquirer, but also the New York Post — and thinks of Time magazine as the ultimate in prestige journalism. Trump is also a visual learner (recent reports claim that aides have taken to filling briefings with charts, graphs, and other easy-to-parse representations of the issues at hand) and gravitates toward cable news, which he watches obsessively. Hence: his love for Fox and Friends, which validates his vision of both his presidency and his worldview, and his dislike of CNN, which he has repeatedly called “fake news.” Before the election, Scarborough and Brzezinski had been friends with Trump for nearly a decade, but over the course of his presidential campaign, began to speak out about his brashness and his attitude toward women.
Trump, who reportedly values loyalty above all other personal characteristics, was infuriated, and repeatedly lashed out at the pair on Twitter, calling them “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe.” They did not apologize for changing the tenor of their show, which often criticized his policies and called his presidential actions into question. Then — per the story told by the hosts on Friday — came the threat of the National Enquirer story, intended as a bully stick to get them back in line.
It didn’t work — even though the tactic has a long history of efficacy. Back in classic Hollywood, if Trump were the head of a studio, and Scarborough and Brzezinski were stars in one of his movies who had “fallen out of line” (which, at the time, could include anything from dating someone who hadn’t been approved by the studio to drinking too much), Trump would’ve reached out to one of the fan magazines or gossip columnists, with audiences in the millions, and planted a piece of information about their love life, their sexual inclinations, or something far less scandalous but equally damning: the idea, for example, that a star was desperate, or couldn’t get a job, or that suddenly no one wanted to cast her in a movie.
These “messages” were rarely explicit, but communicated in the kind of code (“I hear so-and-so’s wife has been spending an awful number of nights home alone”) that would suggest that this was just the beginning. Sometimes these stories would be true, sometimes they’d have a kernel of the truth, or sometimes they’d be blatantly false. But they worked as a signal to the star: You don’t control your life. The studio does.
There are all sorts of “state media” under Trump: Fox News, aspects of the alt-right. But Trump now also has a state media fan magazine (Us Weekly) and tabloid (the National Enquirer), both of which are owned by Trump’s longtime friend, David Pecker. Trump may not control the editorial processes at either magazine, but as a New Yorker profile of Pecker, published earlier this week, suggested, he does kill stories critical of Trump. As Gus Wenner, heir apparent to Wenner Media, put it: “He was painting Donald as extremely loyal to him, and he had no issue being loyal in return. He told me very bluntly that he had killed all sorts of stories for Trump. He hired a girl to be a columnist when she threatened to go public with a story about Donald.” (Importantly, Pecker denied telling Wenner that he killed stories critical of Trump, but he did not, in fact, deny killing the stories.)
If what Scarborough and Brzezinski allege is true, then Trump knew that there was an Enquirer story in the works, and wanted to wield it — and the fear of scandal regarding the origins of their relationship — over the pair. Even 20 years ago, the threat may have worked: Scandal, especially sexual in nature, could’ve sparked a boycott, or blacklisted them within the industry. But Scarborough and Brzezinski aren’t mainstream stars who need to appeal to a conservative base. They’re MSNBC news hosts, and the threat of revelations about their “sleazy cheating scandal,” as the Enquirer put it, fell on deaf (or at the very least, uninterested) ears. For a revelation to become a scandal, after all, people have to be scandalized by it. Trump was playing by ‘90s gossip rules, while Scarborough and Brzezinski knew they no longer applied.
They no longer applied because of its intended audience and ever-shifting social mores, but also because Trump has exploded whatever semblance of a morality scale that existed. His tweets, his blatant disregard for the truth, his abject treatment of women — all of it is, by any previous measure, scandalous behavior for the president of the United States, but most have become too fatigued by him, too weary by his offenses, to reach something like outrage.
Trump’s eventual response was to turn to Twitter — to denigrate Brzezinski’s IQ, to signal disgust, in what has become a theme, in women’s viscera, to play on the disgust that tabloids themselves have long cultivated when it comes to the bodies of women as they age. He was enraged, and acted out that rage by attempting to debase her using the few tools that remain available to him: his Twitter account and America’s reservoir of disgust with women, and aging women in particular, who dare to speak forcefully in public.
Trump’s attempt to manipulate the threat of scandal against Scarborough and Brzezinski is a classic gossip trick. But it, like so many of Trump’s old-fashioned strong-arm negotiating tools, has proven ineffective. The best way to understand Trump has always been to think of him as an old-school celebrity, following archaic but often effective rules for generating and deflecting attention and publicity. But this apparent desperation, as those rules have increasingly failed him, feels like something new, and wild, and dirty, and dangerous.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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