The great entertainer:
The mystery of our fascination with Trump

If Trump was the question, is TV the answer?

by Wilfred Clifton - 1 November 2016

The mystery of our fascination with Trump - illustration

The candidacy of Donald Trump came as a complete surprise to most people. When his run for president was announced, few expected the outspoken and flamboyant real estate magnate, businessman and television personality to have even a remote chance of securing the Republican nomination.

First of all, although he had flirted with the idea of running for president before, Trump had no prior experience in politics. Before his candidacy, he was a familiar face through his role as the host of the reality show The Apprentice; famous for his business empire, his ownership of a number of beauty pageants and his many cameos in movies and TV shows. Political commentators quickly decried his lack of political experience; how could someone like Trump beat heavy hitters like Bush, Rubio or Cruz?

Yet, shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, he surged in the polls, much to the surprise of pundits who struggled to explain his mass appeal. Trump soon proved to be the antithesis of a traditional politician, making highly controversial statements that many predicted would be his downfall. But the opposite happened; voters still preferred him to his Republican opponents. As it turned out, his popularity was more than a flash in the pan, and a year later Donald Trump was the Republican nominee for president.

Clearly, even if he loses the election to Hillary Clinton, the phenomenon of Trump requires some sort of explanation. What is the reason behind the unlikely rise of such a fiercely divisive candidate as Trump? Are we missing something obvious here?

How TV networks skewed their coverage in Trump’s favor

Trump was a godsend to the national TV networks. Not only was he already a celebrity, but he was everything the other candidates weren’t. Bold, brash and irreverent, in public appearances he followed his instinct rather than scripted bullet points. What Trump lacked in political experience, he made up for in genuineness and off-key likability. TV networks eagerly embraced him because they found that reporting on an unconventional candidate like Trump was good for ratings. Trump, in turn, quickly discovered that he could capitalize on something that many regarded as his greatest weakness. Whenever he made controversial statements, TV networks gave him wide coverage and tended to overlook his competitors.

Was Trump gaming the media? Not really. It cannot be said that TV networks were naively baited by a scheming person who manipulated the media for his own purposes. The TV networks knew perfectly well what they were doing when they focused their attention on Trump. The CEO of CBS, Leslie Moonves, famously said that the TV ratings Trump and his competitors elicited, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He was further quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” 1

In the name of TV ratings and ad revenue, the national networks allowed Trump to steal the thunder of the other Republican candidates. This paid off for the networks, too. For example, CNN’s viewership increased by 38 percent in 2015, and in the first quarter of 2016 its prime time ratings grew 159 percent. 2

Just how skewed has the TV coverage of Trump been? As it turns out, very much! We can safely say that the coverage of Trump on TV has completely overshadowed that of the other candidates. Of the 17 candidates for the Republican candidacy, Trump has received more TV coverage than the rest of them combined. Chew on that for a while!

TV attention - graph

According to the GDELT monitoring project, Trump accounted for 55.9 percent of the total mentions of Republican candidates on national TV from the time of his announcement to the point at which he became the presumptive nominee. 3 In contrast, Ted Cruz received 8.4 percent of total mentions, while Jeb Bush, the big favorite, could account for only 8 percent. If we turn to the lesser-known candidates, the numbers become even more lopsided. Carly Fiorina, the sole woman in the Republican primaries, got 1.7 percent of the coverage, Rand Paul clocked in at 0.8 percent and George Pataki received a measly 0.1 percent of total GOP mentions. In other words, television networks gave 36,227 percent more attention to Trump than they did to George Pataki, and Trump received 565 percent more attention than did his closest rival, Ted Cruz.

The GDELT project monitors raw mentions, which obviously include offhand remarks, but it’s clear that this is a solid indicator of overall media attention. The Tyndale report, which analyzes daily TV news content, found a similar pattern. 4

Is anyone still surprised that Trump won the Republican nomination?

The real media bias

The skewed media coverage of the Republican presidential candidates is not evidence of political bias; much of the attention Trump has received has been negative. The media’s fixation on Trump is, instead, evidence of the entertainment bias we find in television. Television is skewed towards the sensational, the bizarre, whatever can increase the ratings of the TV networks. Trump has been good for business. His bold and controversial statements are highly entertaining, which explains why the media has wholeheartedly embraced Trump.

The media’s entertainment bias clearly translates into political currency. To a certain degree, the adage “all publicity is good publicity” is true. In the primaries, a bit of negative media attention was not such a bad deal for Trump. The television networks completely forgot about the other Republican candidates in the field, and willingly let him steal the other candidates’ thunder.

“Trump” is therefore a phenomenon largely created by the television networks in their competition for ratings. Sure, his populist statements have had a broad mass appeal, but he would never have gotten this far without the help he received from television.

Why image is everything

If Trump wasn’t previously known as a politician, why is a large segment of Americans comfortable with the thought of him as president? Trump is mainly known to the American public as the host of the reality shows The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. In these shows, he appears as a “tough but wise” CEO, which is an image that seems to have stuck in the American psyche.

Perhaps the man people knew and supported wasn’t first and foremost Trump as a politician, but rather the persona of someone with whom they have grown familiar through television. We must remember that Trump’s reality shows have been aired for longer than a decade, so it’s safe to say that people are more acquainted with Trump as a celebrity than as a politician.

This suggestion is more than mere conjecture. In September 2015, the media analytics company AMG found that Trump’s support among Republican viewers of The Apprentice was 80.9 percent higher than among non-viewers. Viewers of The Apprentice were also 129 percent more inclined to rate Trump favorably than unfavorably, while he was “barely above water” among non-viewers. The poll found that only 37 percent of Republicans who hadn’t watched the show approved of Trump, while 34 percent of non-viewers rated him favorably, a mere 8.8 percent difference. 5

In this respect, Trump can be compared to the folksy Reagan, who succeeded in large measure due to the way in which the public perceived him. Both men have in common the fact that they were TV stars before they became politicians. In his media appearances, Reagan excelled at appearing down to earth and amiable. Now, Trump is definitely not a carbon copy of Reagan; in some ways they are polar opposites. Reagan drew upon his extensive experience as an actor and, due to his command of the audience, he was called “the great communicator.” So far in the election, Trump has been combative and confrontational, a style very unlike Reagan’s. However, like Reagan, Trump’s main attraction stems from his media persona rather than his policies. At a time when people feel much disdain for politicians and authorities, Trump succeeded because he didn’t act like a politician.

Political content might therefore be of secondary importance when it comes to explaining Trump’s appeal. The media image of a no-nonsense celebrity CEO appears to be more crucial. Trump’s media image, created by his reality shows and decades of TV appearances, was undoubtedly stronger than people realized.

When controversies don’t count

Do we underestimate the appeal of Trump’s political positions when we say that the combination of media attention, Trump’s celebrity image and his folksy style was the main explanation for his support?

No, we don’t think that we overestimate the power of media effects. At the beginning of Trump’s campaign, most commentators expected the negative attention created by his controversial statements to sink his candidacy. And, in fact, a dry, old-school politician wouldn’t have been able to make statements like Trump did, and still go on to win the Republican nomination.

But statements that would have doomed a traditional candidate, did seemingly have no repercussions for Trump during the primaries. Commentators marveled at the fact that the negative attention created by his many controversies failed to sink his candidacy. There is an explanation for this, though.

When we see that Trump’s repeated controversies left him without a scratch, we’re left with the impression that a large part of the American audience was inclined to judge Trump as a celebrity and not as a politician. The celebrity Trump has much more leeway than does a traditional politician; the audience was willing to forgive his offensive statements as long as he continued to grab their attention.

Or at least this was the case up to a point. Understandably, this has not so much been the case during the general election. In late September, Trump pulled close to Clinton in polls and for a time the presidency seemed within his reach. Then a video recording surfaced of Trump making extremely lewd remarks about women. The scandal quickly snowballed when women went public with accusations of sexual harassment and assault. This scandal eventually had an impact, and Trump plummeted in the polls. There is, of course, a limit to voters’ patience that not even Trump could cross. Promising the mass deportation of millions of people was apparently okay, but lewd talk and possible sexual harassment proved too much to swallow for many.

At the time of this writing, there is still a week until election day. In spite of a scandal of her own, Clinton is still slightly ahead in the polls. A comeback for Trump doesn’t seem likely at this point, but is it impossible?

We should remember that entertainers aren’t judged by normal political standards. When it comes to celebrities, we regularly and willingly forgive behavior that would be devastating to politicians. These actions would completely destroy the credibility of a “regular” politician. Celebrities and entertainers get away with these things; politicians don’t. We forgive their racist slurs, drunk driving, extramarital affairs, tax fraud or even behavior that the public deems deeply offensive. For example, movie director Roman Polanski has continued to make popular films despite the fact that he sexually abused a minor. The gravest sin for an entertainer is to be boring, your personal mistakes tend to be of less importance to the public. In fact, as we readily see from the tabloid press and TV, indulging in the public sins of celebrities is in many ways a form of entertainment in itself.

The revolution will be televised

Drawing on the data from the GDELT project, we see that even after the nominations, TV coverage of the presidential candidates was extremely skewed. Counting from Hillary Clinton’s official nomination until today, Trump has received 62.2 percent of candidate mentions, while Clinton has received 36.9 percent. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee, accounts for 0.5 percent of coverage, while the other female presidential candidate, Jill Stein of the Green Party, received only 0.2 percent of the remaining mentions since the 26th of July. 6

The underlying systemic reasons that enabled Trump’s candidacy won’t disappear, even if he goes on to lose the election. That’s why it’s important to pay no heed to those who are interested in making Trump a freak, an aberration from the rules. Trump is no freak; he is an accurate manifestation of the symbiosis between the entertainment industry and the political system. Ultimately, the support for Trump is a reflection of our TV habits. Altered media tastes and new TV habits inevitably lead to a new brand of politician. Given our diet of reality TV, Fox News and CNN, we shouldn’t be too surprised about Trump. The American political process is more TV driven than people realize, and this is the fundamental truth that the meteoric rise of Trump reveals.

What about newspapers, websites and magazines? Surely they write about Trump too. Why single out TV as a driving factor behind Trump’s candidacy? Well, it is true that the media in general, and not only TV networks, is paying a lot of attention to Trump. That said, according to Nielsen, the American public watches almost five hours of television a day. 7 In contrast, the average daily consumption of newspapers and magazines is counted in minutes, not hours.

Although we don’t claim that television is the sole reason for the candidacy of Trump, the media diet of the American people, particularly TV, explains quite a bit. As the main source of entertainment and information, TV consumption, more than anything else, is responsible for keeping Trump in the limelight. Sustained media attention is the fuel that kept Trump’s campaign alive.

In fact, the big surprise isn’t Trump’s political success, but that it took so long before America got its Berlusconi. Given the entertainment bias of television programming, a person like Trump simply had to show up sooner or later.

Trump might still lose big to Clinton, but nobody can say that he has been a dull candidate. What does this mean for the future of American politics? A direct consequence is that from now on every future candidate competing for the attention of the American public will be compared to someone who managed to run an entire campaign without boring the audience for a single second.

Who knows? Perhaps the American presidential election in 2020 or 2024 will be won by a YouTube star.

Notes

  1. Leslie Moonves on Donald Trump: “It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS”

  2. The Twilight of Fox News

  3. Analysis by the GDELT Project using data from the Internet Archive Television News Archive. 16 June 2015 to 3 May 2016. This is a broad number for comparison purposes. We haven’t taken into consideration the fact that some Republican candidates (in this case, George Pataki) dropped out of the race earlier than others.

  4. How much does Donald Trump dominate TV news coverage? This much

  5. “Huge” Surprise: Republican Viewers of The Apprentice Are Much More Likely To Support The Donald.

  6. Percentage of total mentions of candidates still in the race, i.e., Trump, Clinton, Johnson, Stein. 26 July to 28 October. Candidates on the ballot in fewer than 40 states are excluded.

  7. Choice Cuts: Consumers Have Nearly Unlimited Content Options, But How Many Do They Really Use?

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