On 9th November, 2016 Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.
In his last White House correspondents’ dinner, Obama jokingly criticized the media for putting excessive focus on Trump. According to Nick Timiraos’ (2016) article published in the Wall Street Journal, Obama said, “I want to show some restraint because I think we can all agree from the start he’s gotten the appropriate amount of coverage befitting the seriousness of his candidacy. The guy just wanted to give his hotel business a boost, and now we are all praying that Cleveland makes it through July.”
Those who initially dismissed Trump’s bid for the republican candidacy as a PR stunt are now forced to reevaluate the situation. Setting all doubts to rest about the seriousness of his candidacy, Trump remarked, “If I didn’t think I could win I would not have entered the race,” in a post Indiana primaries election victory interview with veteran CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer (CNN, 2016).
Deconstructing Trump’s Appeal
According to Himmelweit et al (1985), the act of voting is just like purchase of goods. They argue that voting is just like any other consumer choice, regardless of whether the voter is ill-informed or well-informed, whether his beliefs are solid or prone to change. So, according to this theory, voters do not really consider the act of voting to be any more crucial than the purchase of a product. According to Radder and Huang (2008), there are two kinds of purchase behaviors depending on the level of consumer involvement: high involvement products, that are usually expensive and may be considered as long-term investments (example: real estates and cars), and low involvement products (ex: soap, shampoo). Consumers tend to collect more information before the purchase of a high-involvement product. Low-involvement products are purchased upon cursory inspections.
As explained by Downs (1957), voters do not have enough motivation to gather information just to improve their voting choices. They will usually rely on information shortcuts as opposed to in-depth research and information from reliable sources. Therefore, the act of voting can be compared to making a low-involvement product purchase where consumers make a decision based on information shortcuts.
According to Somin (2013), for political fans there is little reward to actively pursue information on political issues. As result they are prone to choose political leaders based on how entertaining they are and whether or not they make the audience feel comfortable with the views they already have about the world and their surroundings.
So if a mainstream TV show like The Apprentice portrays Trump as a successful, level-headed, smart businessman who is well suited for a leadership role; then that is what the masses might be inclined to believe as opposed to hard hitting articles backed up with facts which ridicule or criticize his candidacy.
According to Popkin (1991) voters care more about how presidential a candidate looks as opposed to their political track record. And when it comes to forming narratives, a small amount of personal information can prove to be much more crucial in forming an opinion in the mind of the voter as opposed to political information. Popkin stresses that information that is logically compelling or supported by sophisticated data is habitually ignored by people whereas information that is logically weaker but easily palatable may elicit strong response from voters. Which means dramatic statements and showmanship often has advantage over logical arguments and hard numbers. This would explain how Trump’s mimicry of an aged Bernie Sanders or his implication that Ted Cruz’s father Rafael Cruz may be linked to the assassination of John F Kennedy (based on a photograph in which Rafael Cruz was seen with Lee Harvey Oswald) (CBS News, 2016); is far more likely to influence voters than the logical, well constructed fact-based arguments made against him by his political opponents and media pundits.
If Popkin is to be believed, then Trump entered the race with the strongest narrative out of all Republican candidates. Thanks to a wealth of personal information about himself made available through television appearances and reality shows. An episode titled “Bart to the Future” of popular American TV show The Simpsons even predicted the Trump presidency 16 years ago, on March 19, 2000. Writer Dan Greany said he wrote it as a warning, and to him Trump being president was consistent with the vision of America collectively losing its mind as a nation. (Parker, 2016)
This assumption is also supported by Graber and Dunaway (2015), who argue that since the majority is exposed to far more non-political media as opposed to political news coverage, their political image is formed through information gathered via make-believe media, entertainment television and movies.
Former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich has confirmed the effectiveness of Trump’s tactics. He praised Donald Trump for running his campaign cheaper than ‘anybody in history’ and getting more media attention than any other candidate just by ‘being interesting’. Newt also commented that Trump’s technique of brutalizing people who oppose him may be unsavoury, but there is no doubt that this technique working in his favour. (Newsmax, 2016)
Trump’s personality and campaign eloquently described by New Yorker columnist Gopnik (2016),
“…But his personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum’s or Barack Obama’s, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and ‘success.'”
How Trump used negative media coverage to his advantage
In the early days of audience research, it was assumed that audience was passive and powerless, being moulded by whatever was being fed via television programmes. However, numerous scholars have come to question this notion after David Morley revealed his active audience theory. According to Morley (1993), the audience is anything but passive. The audience is interacting with the media in a myriad of ways, even more so in the modern landscape of new media where they actively participate and let their views be heard. Not only that, but it is not uncommon for the audience to make selective readings of ideological messages, and making completely oppositional readings from what was originally intended by the encoder.
So, according to Morley’s explanation, just because the audience is being bombarded with anti-Trump messages in both new and old media, they are not necessarily going to oppose Trump. In fact, the effect could be quite opposite. Audiences who are inclined to vote for Trump may look at him as a victim of the media. And Trump has utilized the negative stories against him very well to portray himself as a candidate being unfairly treated by the media. From making fun of a disabled New York Times reporter, to routinely referring to the media as “scum” and “very dishonest people” and even boycotting journalists who ask him questions he doesn’t like answering or finds bothersome; like Fox’s Megyn Kelly and Univision’s Jorge Ramos. (Huddleston, 2016).
So why does media continue to give Trump’s presidential campaign such exhaustive coverage? According to political scientist Larry Sabato (1991) this sort of media coverage is termed as “feeding frenzies”. A scenario where harsh competition in the media industry compels different media outlets to fill endless hours of airtime with drama-filled audience bait. As Westen (2008, p.35) famously stated, “In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.”
And despite all criticism of Trump’s behaviour, there is no questioning the fact that he as the ability to rile up a huge majority of American people.
Trump is well aware that his antics, combined with his celebrity status and unusual candidacy; significantly boost the ratings of media outlets. And since higher ratings mean higher advertising revenue for news networks, they are always keen to cover him. Which is why when he refused to show up for Fox News GOP debate shortly after the Iowa caucuses, because Megyn Kelly was going to be co-moderating the debate and he did not enjoy her line of questioning. Without the presence of Donald Trump, the Fox News debate immediately took a big hit in the ratings. And within a few short months, Megyn Kelly had to schedule a meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower to “clear the air”. The meeting was brokered by none other than the Chairman of Fox News Roger Ailes. Soon after the meeting, Fox News issued an official statement, “Kelly has acknowledged in recent interviews that Trump is a fascinating person to cover and has electrified the Republican base.” Shortly after the meeting with Kelly, Ailes himself sat down with Trump in a separate meeting before releasing the aforementioned official statement. (Stelter, 2016)
No other candidate has been able to exert this level of control over the mainstream media, other than Donald J. Trump. Which begs the question whether politics has become so trivial to the American people that they support Trump solely based on his entertainment value, or whether they truly believe that Trump’s policies can make America great again.
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Newsmax, (2016). Gingrich: Trump ‘Largest Upside and Largest Downside’ of Any Candidate. [online] Available at: http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/donald-trump-newt-gingrich-campaign-president/2016/04/15/id/724193/ [Accessed 12 May 2016].
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Stelter, B. (2016). Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly met at Trump Tower to ‘clear the air’. CNN Money. [online] Available at: http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/13/media/megyn-kelly-donald-trump-meet/ [Accessed 12 May 2016].
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