Since his first bouts with local fame in New York City, Trump has carefully curated his public image to emphasize how much power he has and how successful he is.
Manhattan insiders know that the city’s real elite has always looked down on Trump. But readers of The Art of the Deal think of him as the embodiment of a powerful negotiator who knows how to flex his financial muscles.
Business journalists know that many of Trump’s ventures quickly went bankrupt, and that he would now be much richer if he had simply invested his inheritance in the S&P 500. But to most Americans, the host of The Apprentice is an entrepreneur who built a grand empire thanks to his incredible business sense.
Now, however, Trump’s veneer of invincibility is fading. He lost his bid for reelection, and staged the most incompetent coup attempt since Woody Allen’s Bananas. He can rant and rave about what happened in November, but he can’t keep his followers from seeing Joe Biden inaugurated in January. Fear of what he might attempt next is giving way to laughter. He looks weaker and more scared by the day.
When Oprah Winfrey left her show to start her own network, she was the biggest star on television. Many analysts predicted that her new venture would be a huge success. At the time, some press reports even suggested that bosses at the main broadcast networks were seriously worried about the competition.
Contrary to these expectations, the Oprah Winfrey Network struggled to find an audience. In the first years of its existence, it bled tens of millions of dollars. Today, OWN has established a stable niche for itself, and even makes a little profit. But with an average viewership of fewer than 500,000 people in 2018, it plays in a completely different league from the four major networks and the most commercially successful cable channels.
This should serve as a warning to anybody who is now fielding pitches to invest in the Trump News Network. If Trump follows the lead of other authoritarian populists like Hugo Chávez and hosts a regular television program, he can undoubtedly induce his most devoted fans to tune in. But to be commercially viable, his channel would have to expand that core audience, recruit other hosts who are capable of sustaining the public’s attention, hire journalists who can actually cover what is going on in the world, and attract advertising from run-of-the-mill corporations.
Competing with Fox News would be a tall order for anyone starting a conservative news network. Given Trump’s record of incompetence in both business and public office, he seems especially unlikely to be able to pull it off.
No one can say for sure what Trump’s life will look like in four years. By 2024, he could be bankrupt, sitting in prison, or in very poor health. But even if he is in a position to run for the Republican nomination, he won’t necessarily win.