What happens to the likes of Sarah Cooper, Crooked Media, and the Lincoln Project in a Trumpless world?
Donald Trump made Sarah Cooper famous.
She can’t wait for him to leave.
“I’m very excited about him being gone,” says the comedian, who went from (mostly) unknown to omnipresent this spring with a brilliant series of Trump lip-sync videos. “I want my career to do other things, and I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
Cooper doesn’t have a love-hate relationship with Trump. She hates him. Which puts her in the same boat as other media personalities and companies that have turned the Trump era to their advantage by focusing their ire into opportunities.
And now that it looks as though Trump might be leaving, they need to figure out what to do next. Even if some of them aren’t ready to say that out loud quite yet.
To be clear: A post-Trump world doesn’t mean the political and cultural divisions that brought us Trump — and that Trump has exploited — get closed up. But if your reason for being is defeating Donald Trump, and that happens, then … what?
The Lincoln Project, a group of “Never Trump” Republicans who came together less than a year ago to deploy ads against Trump in the 2020 election, now wants to become a media company, according to Axios. The Lincoln Project says that’s not exactly true. But it could be, per a statement from the company:
“We have not floated the idea of becoming producers or a media company … people have approached us about it, and we’ve said to one and all, ‘This is a convo for after the election. We’re locked down tight on the mission of defeating Trump.’”
So if they were to do that, they’d be following in the footsteps of Crooked Media, the company run by Obama White House veterans, which formed after Trump’s 2016 election. For the last four years, the company has primarily leaned on its flagship Pod Save America podcast but has branched out into other ventures like a newsletter, an HBO show, and other politically-tinged podcasts; industry executives expect the company to add other kinds of nonpolitical programming in a post-Trump world.
One indicator of Crooked Media’s ambition: It has hired Jason Concepcion, a high-profile podcaster from The Ringer, where he specialized in pop culture projects like Binge Mode, a series dedicated to franchises like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones; and NBA Desktop, an inventive version of SportsCenter for the Google Doc + Insta Stories generation. (Of note: Crooked Media’s core team also started their podcasting career at The Ringer.)
Crooked Media co-founder Jon Favreau wouldn’t comment on Concepcion’s role or his company’s post-Trump strategy, but sent a statement hinting at the company’s expanded ambitions: “Crooked has always been in this for the long haul to inform, entertain, and inspire action. We’ll have a lot more to say soon about what’s next, once we all get a chance to breathe after this election.”
Some anti-Trump media will have no choice but to pivot to something else if Trump loses the election. Slate started its popular Trumpcast podcast in the spring of 2016 when it started to look like Trump might be a serious presidential candidate — but not an actual president. It’s still going, but if Trump loses, the show will at least change its name while keeping host Virginia Heffernan, says a Slate PR rep.
“This is a problem we wanted to have,” says Jacob Weisberg, who started Trumpcast at Slate and now runs the podcast studio Pushkin Industries. Pushkin, Weisberg notes, doesn’t have an explicitly anti-Trump show in its lineup. “But I expect a lot of political shows, which are really built on the Trump phenomenon, are going to decline.”
Of course, there are plenty of media outlets that existed before Trump and haven’t said they are directly opposed to his administration but have still benefited from his tenure: The “Trump bump” that the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC have all seen are well-documented.
The same goes for individual talents like Maggie Haberman, the Times’s star Trump reporter. Michael Barbaro was a well-regarded but unfamous Times reporter prior to February 2017 when he launched the paper’s The Daily podcast weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Now he’s a star and a star-maker. Jake Tapper has gone from a CNN anchor into a charismatic truth-teller and bluffer-buster: Maybe someone else could have gotten Trump’s chief of staff to announce the White House had given up on containing the pandemic, but Tapper did it on a big platform.
One obvious thing that would go away in a Biden administration is the “can-you-believe-he-did-that” story, which Trump has been reliably serving up since 2015 when he announced his candidacy. Which is different from saying people won’t be outraged — there will be plenty of that going around. But there’s unlikely to be a single focus for that outrage — or someone who seemingly enjoys being that focus.
“There’s going to be a certain kind of easy story that has the potential to go away for all outlets if there’s a change of administration — ‘Administration Official Says Outrageous Thing,’” says Noah Shachtman, editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast. “If Biden does win, his people have shown that they’re pretty careful.”
One big unknown is what kind of interest Trump would generate outside of the White House. Traditionally, presidents have kept a low profile after leaving office, but no one expects that to happen with Trump. The question is how much attention he’ll be able to attract if he’s tweeting as a private citizen instead of a guy with access to nuclear codes and pardon power.
It’s quite likely that Trump and his remaining hangers-on will try to create some kind of media company after he leaves — an idea they are floating now, just as they had floated in 2016. Then again, he may not need to build much of an operation: Fox News has already demonstrated that it thrives when a Democrat is in the White House, as it did throughout the Obama administration. And it already has an audience that thrills to Trump’s provocations.
Cooper, meanwhile, has been planning on a post-Trump world for months. She says she made her first Trump-sync, “How to Medical,” as a spur-of-the-moment project to occupy her for a few hours during the pandemic lockdown.
But over the next few months, as her clips kept going viral, she says they started to feel like an obligation. And in the summer, when her newly acquired talent managers arranged an online Q&A for her, she realized that many of her fans hated Trump more than they liked her.
So she’s been trying to move beyond Trump. Last month she debuted “Everything’s Fine,” a one-off Netflix sketch comedy. She’s also producing a sitcom for CBS. She’s mostly stopped making Trump videos, though she’ll still pop one off occasionally: Last week, when Trump mused publicly about getting in a truck and driving away, she couldn’t help herself.
But she also knows she’s never going to get completely away from Trump. Her Netflix special includes a different take on her Trump-sync, where she and Helen Mirren re-create the infamous “grab them by the pussy” Access Hollywood audio. And she knows she’ll always be known as someone who got her big break from Donald Trump.
“I just have to keep doing other things for the next few years so all of that gets buried,” she says. “I’m still very proud of these videos — I don’t think I’ll ever not be proud of them. They’re on the right side of history.”