Donald Trump, who is currently leading the GOP primary field by an average of a little more than 15 points,* released his first TV ad this morning, after previewing it to The Washington Post yesterday. The tone of the ad is aggressively doomy and gloomy, with darkened images of masked men carrying the ISIS flag and grainy shots of what are supposed to look like crowds of immigrants, presumably streaking across the U.S. border. At the end, there's a shot of Trump himself, standing at a rally, declaring his intention to "make America great again."
It's like a teaser trailer for the apocalypse that ends with the promise that only voting Donald Trump for president can stop it.
But otherwise there's nothing new or particularly remarkable about the ad, except in the sense that everything about Donald Trump's presidential run is in some way remarkable. In the ad, a narrator reiterates Trump's constitutionally dubious promise to stop Muslim immigration, declares that as president he would "quickly cut the head off ISIS and take their oil," and says, for the umpteenth time, that he'll stop illegal immigration by building a southern border wall funded by Mexico. It's outrageous, yes, but typically so. There's nothing here that Trump hasn't said multiple times before.
In a way, though, it is Trump's campaign in miniature—a compendium of implicit smears delivered in the form of promises that he cannot possibly keep. It is Trump braying proudly about how awful he is, which is to say that it is Trump being Trump.
I'm somewhat hesitant to post the ad, given that Trump's strategy with the ad seems to be to get the media, and in particular cable news, to replay it over and over again. Trump has said he'll spend at least $2 million a week on buying time for this ad and some future spots that he claims to have in the works, for the foreseeable future. But the real story is that, as the Post notes, whatever it is he spends, even if it turns out to be much less than advertised, "will be amplified by the countless times [the ads] are likely to be played on cable news and across social media."
Political campaigns typically run two types of media strategies: Paid media, which covers the print space and airtime the campaign buys, and earned media, which covers the free airtime provided by news coverage. Unlike his GOP rivals, some of whom have already spent millions on paid media, Trump has relied almost entirely on earned media coverage to keep his campaign afloat. The release of this ad represents a strategic shift in that Trump's campaign will be producing spots and, he claims, buying time on the air. But it's not a very big shift, because Trump's new paid media strategy is really a kind of earned media strategy, reliant on outrage and awfulness to generate attention and controversy.
In that sense, I suppose it's working, much like the rest of his campaign is working (judging by the poll numbers). After all, here I am, writing about the ad first thing on Monday morning. But for Trump and his campaign, it's really nothing new. Watch the ad below.
*Although it's worth noting that no polls have been released since before Christmas.