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Trump and Pecker Sittin’ in a Tree

 

Before there was Fox News, before there was Rush Limbaugh, before there was the sprawling rightwing ecosystem of fake news and vicious smears we so enjoy today, there was the National Enquirer.

For most of our lives, the Enquirer stared up at us from the checkout aisle of our local supermarket. Somehow, we never made the connection that its readers would one day fit the stereotype of the Trump voter — under-educated, gullible, malleable, easy targets for disinformation.

The Enquirer nurtured those targets over many decades, got them to believe virtually anything, and helped lay the groundwork for the sort of know-nothing insurgency that brought Trump into all our lives.

Decades ahead of its time, the Enquirer was peddling fake news long before it was fashionable. It appealed unapologetically to humanity’s baser instincts, the ones most of us try to rise above. It was always flamboyantly sleazy, and always there in plain sight, something we could dependably look down on.

The Enquirer has owned that supermarket space for as long as I can remember, yet I never stopped to think what impressions were being made on impressionable people, people simply standing on that line, reading the covers.

Each cover featured screaming headlines, dripping with innuendo and smarm, dedicated to the proposition that celebrity scandal is a basic food group. Even if you never bought the paper, even if you never looked inside one, you still saw those headlines. You might not believe them, but you couldn’t un-see them.

Imagine, though, if those headlines were all that you read that day. Imagine reading them each time you go shopping. Imagine them being, in effect, a trusted news source, maybe your only one.  That trust can be manipulated.

Which is exactly what happened in 2016, the year the Enquirer went political, and in a big way.

Trump is now on trial for what the press has deemed “hush money” payments to a porn star. That characterization has always been misleading, but now we know it’s about much more, thanks to the testimony of the Enquirer’s publisher, David Pecker. That testimony is in exchange for not being prosecuted for his own, quite prominent, role in the very crimes he describes.

We’ve long known of the warped bromance between Trump and Pecker, but until now, we’ve never understood the extent of the mischief they were up to, or of the impact they might have had on that bonkers election.

Pecker would put out glowing stories about Trump, wildly exaggerating the candidate’s business prowess, his wealth, his trophy wife, his larger-than-life persona. These would be interspersed with outlandish cover stories aimed at sliming anyone standing between Trump and the presidency.

During the primaries, those stories were about how Marco Rubio had fathered a “love child,” how Ben Carson had left a sponge in a patient’s brain, how Ted Cruz’s father had conspired to kill JFK. And other works of fiction. 

But once the nomination was locked up, the stories were all about Hillary Clinton, and they couldn’t have been more salacious, or more fictitious. On any given week, Clinton could be 105 pounds overweight, wasting away of cancer, involved in a lesbian affair, pimping for her husband, running a kiddy-porn ring, or all of the above.

These smears were all timed to blunt any surge in popularity by their targets, and for every candidate they could put on the defensive, there’d be a political boost for Trump and a sales boost for Pecker. Think of it as journalism’s evil twin.

This went well beyond Pecker’s “catch-and-kill” practice, which was only ever a sideshow — a special service to Trump, but a loss leader for Pecker. The stories being caught and killed, particularly the Karen McDougal affair, could have sold a gazillion papers. But it was better for the campaign to bury them.

Even so, the stories they made up about Trump’s adversaries were pure gold — politically for Trump, financially for Pecker. That this was all illegal, that it was blatant election interference, was beside the point. That bill is only coming due now, eight years later.

Did all this really help Trump get elected? It’s hard to quantify the effect, especially in an election that close. But there’s no doubt that the Enquirer provided what amounted to free advertising to a campaign that was operating on a shoe-string. Sam Nunberg, a longtime Trump flunky, laid it out:

The way we looked at it, the National Enquirer was effective and had a role to play…No other candidate was doing it. People are going to be looking at the cover. It’s a free billboard.

A free billboard. When I was writing advertising, the prevailing wisdom held that a billboard should contain no more than nine words. That’s a great rule-of-thumb for getting across a quick message that might one day lead to the sale of a burger, or a car, or a personal injury lawyer. But it’s not great for deciding who should lead the free world.

Still, think about the sheer political throw-weight of having a new billboard every week, right in your targets’ line of sight, right where those targets can stare at it for a few minutes while fuming about grocery prices. That space at the checkout counter is a priceless megaphone for spewing disinformation, whether the paper gets bought or not.

And let’s not be naïve and assume that just because those billboards are laughingly false, they won’t be taken at face value. Millions of people have been conditioned to believe them. They’ve been taught, over decades, to live outside the reality-based community, and to vote accordingly.

Looking back, it took a perfect storm of malignant forces to elect Trump in 2016. Russian interference, Fox News, media both-siderism, and Comey’s last-minute intervention all played big parts in that catastrophe. But I think the role of the National Enquirer has gone underappreciated, at least up to now.

We’ve long wondered what makes a Trump voter tick. What goes into the mindset of people with weak minds and faulty bullshit detectors?

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that at least part of the answer might be right there in the checkout line, right where it’s been for half a century.

I’m starting to wonder who was looking down on whom.

 

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