This summer’s political madness was nicely captured by a confluence of events over the past few days: While global financial markets teetered, the campaign news was dominated by Donald Trump’s personal feuds with journalists.
Trump’s insults directed toward Fox News’s Megyn Kelly and his confrontation with Univision’s Jorge Ramos were bound to get some attention, especially from journalists inclined to stand up for our colleagues. But the tale wasn’t primarily about journalism. It was just another episode in a TV series, a sign of how brilliantly Trump has succeeded in transforming a battle for the presidency into a reality show starring himself.
In the late 1980s, journalist Martin Schram wrote a book about presidential politics in the television age called “The Great American Video Game.” The Trump obsession shows just how prophetic Schram’s title was. Television is about ratings; Trump delivers ratings; therefore, Trump, whose speeches are 90 percent about Trump — his feelings, experiences, feuds, grudges and, of course, genius — is on television nonstop.
The Trumpification of the news is also a response within the media to the initial reaction of so many in the ranks to Trump. The widespread view was that his personal insults, his nasty remarks about Mexicans (whom he now says he “loves”) and his conversion of the political speech into a form of self-involved stand-up would doom his chances.
This was wrong because (1) Trump’s celebrity, built on the idea that a smart deal-maker can get anything done that he wants, gives him a base among those who don’t care much about politics, and (2) parts of the Republican Party are so fed up with their leadership that the more in-your-face Trump is, the happier they are.
The most concise explanation for the Trump phenomenon came from Erick Erickson, editor of the popular right-wing blog RedState, in an interview this month with the Atlantic’s Molly Ball. “The Republican Party created Donald Trump,” Erickson said, “because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.”
Republican leaders care primarily about a low-tax, pro-business agenda. But they have kept their most conservative supporters at a very high level of angry mobilization, exploiting anxieties about demographic and social change. They kept pledging they would really and truly repeal Obamacare, even when they knew they didn’t have the votes. Trump is the revenge of the party’s non-insiders who are tired of being used.
But there’s a major problem with all of the Trump coverage: It’s based on the assumption that he is leading a formidable mass movement when his following is nothing of the sort. The Trump partisans are, in fact, a very small minority of Americans. Do the math. The polls show that Trump is supported by about 25 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who, together, account for somewhere between 40 percent and 45 percent of the country.
So, generously, the Trump insurrection is built on the backing of all of about 11 percent of Americans.
The limits of Trumpism are further underscored in one of the best deep dives into polling on Trump, by Henry Olsen in National Review. Olsen notes that Trump’s “favorable-to-unfavorable ratio is the lowest of the major candidates.” And when asked if there is a candidate they would never vote for, Republicans are more likely to name Trump than any of his major foes. Trump’s favorability ratings are especially negative among moderates and only slightly less so among Republicans who call themselves somewhat (as opposed to very) conservative.
Trump has certainly gotten further faster than any of his Republican opponents. But all the free television time he is getting cannot be justified by a claim that he is sitting atop some broad uprising akin to the Goldwater or Reagan rebellions. His visibility is the product of circular television logic: Celebrities bring audience share, and the resulting attention they get further enhances their fame.
Trump’s unique contribution has been to achieve a complete fusion of the culture of celebrity to politics. It brings to mind the mystery writer David Handler’s great line about “the power of positive self-delusion.”
Television is a business like any other, but journalism in a democracy is supposed to be about more than that. Nowhere is the tension between financial and public imperatives more obvious than in the massive coverage of the Trump spectacular and the parsimonious attention given to anything serious any other candidate might say. But hey, how often does a serious speech about our economic troubles win ratings for anyone?