The American political system has a never-ending capacity to surprise. Just think of the hitherto-unimagined developments of the past few decades. We elected an actor as President. We elected an African American as President. We almost elected and still might elect a President’s wife – and no one has made the obvious comparison to Argentina. And now we have a situation where the most talked-about Presidential candidate is a billionaire casino operator and reality TV star.
The rise of Donald Trump should not shock the political class as much as it does. Just four years ago Herman Cain and Michelle Bachman led the GOP pack of nominees before the party settled on the grown-up choice of Mitt Romney. Clearly there is a deep-seated sense of alienation and rage within the electorate that is ripe for exploitation, and Trump is cannier than Cain or Bachman could ever hope to be.
For this I blame television. Here are three areas where television has played a deleterious role in the Trump rise.
Television as Briefing Book. Trump is so confident of his own instincts that he can’t be bothered to read briefing books or position papers. Rather, it seems that Trump gets most of his information from television. When Chuck Todd of “Met the Press” asked him who was advising him on military matters, he said, “Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great—you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the generals and you have certain people that you like.”
With all due respect to “Meet the Press,” any time a major presidential candidate is getting his national security information by watching an eight-minute interview on a Sunday news show we are in big trouble. Even as high-minded a show as “Meet the Press” is still in the entertainment business and only a certain amount of nuance is possible. Worse, you just know that Trump is probably getting the majority of his information from the cable networks, who aren’t as intellectually challenging as even “Meet the Press.” With Trump getting most of his public policy information from TV, no wonder his policy prescriptions are 1) so crazy and 2) so popular.
Wall to Wall Coverage. Is Trump dominating the news coverage because he’s dominating the campaign or is he dominating the campaign because he’s dominating the news coverage? Hard to say but there’s no question that he gets a huge amount of air time. CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that Trump has received more news coverage than all of the other GOP candidates combined. Anytime he wants to be on “Today,” “Face the Nation,” or CNN they clear the deck to make room. This has become a vicious circle: the more he acts out, the more coverage he generates, the higher ratings the networks get and the more support he attracts. Everybody wins! Except those tiresome other candidates who are trying to come up with realistic positions on the issues.
On-the-TV Training. Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan have little in common except this: they both spent years hosting TV shows and developing remarkable communications skills. In Trump’s case, 14 seasons on “The Apprentice” transformed him from a sketchy real estate mogul into a household name with huge name recognition.
Just as important, Trump has spent much more time in front of the camera than any other candidate and it shows. His successful TV experience — combined with his own narcissism — has given him the confidence to say whatever comes into his head and to sell it sincerely. Unfortunately it has made him think that politics – and maybe even real life – is a reality TV show, where insults, swagger, casual cruelty and lack of empathy are the keys to success.
There is one upside to Trump’s long years of trying to attract a large TV audience, however: as a TV personality he knows that “hot” TV performers are scary and he’s been careful not to become a hate-filled demagogue, just a wisecracking demagogue. This falls into the “thank God for small favors” category, but in a country as unhappy and uncertain as America is right now, we’re lucky that our biggest demagogue is a buffoon and a showman. He doesn’t fall into the scary tradition of former American populists like Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace. And he’s not as bad as the racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, although his comments about immigrant rapists have occasionally come close.
In the end, I think people will tire of an over-exposed Trump just as they eventually tire of an over-exposed TV show (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” springs to mind. Maybe his campaign should be called “Why wants to Elect a Billionaire?”) Trump’s strategic mistake is that he’s running his campaign as if it were a TV show where the ratings need to be high every day. But a political campaign is different; you only need high ratings on one day — Election Day.