The Hacker Candidate: Trump Is a One-Man DDoS Attack on the Media

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Credit: Kelsey Dake
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The idea that Donald Trump is a carrier of a virus that has infected our body politic has been an enduring subtext of the current presidential election cycle.

In an August 2015 piece titled "The Trump Virus and Its Symptoms" published by the National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, Charles C. W. Cooke wrote about how "those who have been stricken soon come to believe in earnest that there is no such thing as a fair-minded or legitimate criticism of their swashbuckling charge, and that all embarrassments, mistakes and inadequacies are in fact signs of imminent victory."

In June of this year, in a Huffington Post piece titled "Trump, His Virus and the Dark Age of Unreason," Bill Moyers and Michael Winship wrote that a virus that "feeds on fear, paranoia and bigotry" has existed throughout American political history (McCarthyism was one strain) and that "today its carrier is Donald Trump."

And earlier this month, Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, in an op-ed for The Guardian, wrote of Trump: "He handles information like a virus, which has sickened the American people."

The virus metaphor is provocative and resonant, but lately I've been thinking of Donald Trump in a different light: not as the (perhaps) unwitting host for a pernicious political virus, but as a hacker. A media hacker who knows exactly what he's doing.

Case in point: His recent "birther" press conference, in which he declared that "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. President Obama was born in the United States. Period."

As Chris Cillizza wrote in a Washington Post piece titled "Donald Trump's birther event is the greatest trick he's ever pulled," "The most amazing thing was that it took the Republican nominee 29 minutes to deliver those three sentences." Trump spent most of the press conference "touting his new hotel and proclaiming that it is likely to be one of the best in the world" and turning over the stage to "a parade of decorated military veterans who testified to his toughness, his judgment and his temperament" -- all of which CNN, Fox News and MSNBC covered live.

"It was a low moment for politics and political coverage," Cillizza continued, "a nothing-burger filled with falsehoods covered as though it was the Super Bowl. But for Trump, it might have been his crowning achievement: All eyes on him with the chance to direct the play in whatever way he saw fit."

The next day, Trump, clearly proud of himself, tweeted a link to Cillizza's piece.

Meanwhile, PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning home of the Truth-o-Meter, proclaimed Trump's assertion that "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy" to be false. PolitiFact is obviously convinced that facts still matter in this election -- and will surely be working overtime to fact-check what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton say during their debates.

The reality, though, is that we're in a post-factual political climate. So, hey, PolitiFact! You can, as Donald Trump might say, take your Pulitzer and stick it where the sun don't shine.

In a recent piece published in The Week titled "How Journalism Got Exploited by Hackers," Michael Brendan Dougherty argued that "Hackers are inserting themselves into the news production business with increasing regularity, and the effect should unsettle journalists and the public alike," citing examples like the release of emails from former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Democratic National Committee -- leaks that advanced the hackers' shady objectives and pretty much automatically took over multiple news cycles.

In other words, hackers are hacking the media.

Trump has done essentially the same thing, but instead of offering up data dumps or secret memos or email archives, he just keeps hitting the media with nonstop Trumpisms: insult-comic-style sound bites, outright lies and assorted absurdities.

Think of Trump's campaign strategy as a version of the hacker's Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, wherein a server, website or other digital system is overwhelmed and effectively rendered useless by a massive incoming barrage. Trump is a one-man DDoS attack on the media; he bombards the media-industrial complex so relentlessly that everything just kind of freezes up and falls apart.

In other words, Trump is hacking the media.

For Trump, this MO is hardly a recent development. Consider a Doonesbury cartoon published on Nov. 14, 1999 -- and collected in the recently published "Yuge! 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump" -- that has been widely shared on Twitter the past couple of weeks. Trump formed an exploratory committee to consider a run for president that year, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau imagined Donald Trump saying these words to the press assembled before him:

"As you know, there's been this amazing, amazing, amazing response to my candidacy! It's unbelievable how amazing it's been! ... As long as I'm a candidate, you have to cover me! Which is good for the Trump brand, which just gets bigger and bigger and bigger! It's a win-win-win for me! Because no matter what I do, I get phenomenal, amazing, unbelievable publicity! You have to give it to me! For free! You have no choice! You're sheep!"

On that note, let the debates begin.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.