On August 5, 1994, Howard Stern ended his campaign to become governor of New York.
He had promised to resign anyway, if elected, “before I can really screw anything up.” His running mate would carry out his commitments: actively pursuing the death penalty and using the ashes of executed criminals to refill potholes.
Stern was dropping out rather than disclose his personal financial records. “I spend 25 hours a week telling you all the most intimate details of my life,” he said. “One fact I’ve never revealed is how much I make and how much money I have… it’s none of your business.”
That’s how most “serious analysts” thought Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign would end — just another in his endless transparent publicity stunts. Fred Trump’s fortunate son had mentioned himself as a candidate for president and released a book pretty much every four years since 1988 and always waffled, worried about exposing his various financial misdealings
Trump, of course, figured out how to bury the truth in an avalanche of disclosure. We still have no idea how much he’s really worth or if he pays any taxes at all — he’s the first candidate in recent memory to win a major party nomination without releasing anything resembling a tax return.
Trump has taken the campaign-as-PR thing much further than Stern ever did, but he’s done it by becoming a master of a genre that the “King of All Media” created: the reality show.
Stern in 2016 exists in a different universe than he did in 1994, when few in the mainstream press defended his racially and sexually-charged — and wildly successful — humor for the multi-layered “Archie Bunker”-type parody it often is. Today, he’s widely regarded as the greatest celebrity interviewer and most prolific American humorist alive, possibly ever. And he is the man who taught Donald Trump, a frequent guest of the Stern show for decades, how to win the Republican nomination.
Last week, liberal commentator Van Jones warned Democrats on CNN that Trump is likely to win the presidency, despite polling and punditry suggesting otherwise. Jones compared Trump’s mastery of reality television and social media to FDR’s gift for radio of JFK’s flare for television. Stern’s utter destruction of the “fourth wall” pioneered an approach to media that consciously attempted to present that “reality.” Without Stern, Trump is impossible.
A donor to Hillary Clinton, Stern says he’s torn in the general election, he says, because he’s a fierce defender of reproductive rights and one of the rare Americans who’d proudly call himself a pro-abortion advocate — he wants more of them. But he figures Trump will invite him to Camp David, and he wants the American public to see how our royalty really live.
Stern doesn’t believe that Trump is truly anti-abortion rights because better than anyone he gets the game the billionaire is playing, which is why he was one of the first people to predict Trump would be the GOP nominee. It’s a game he invented.
Here are five rules Donald Trump learned from Howard Stern that Democrats better understand if they don’t want to make the same mistakes Republicans did.
- Never be boring.
This might be Stern’s One Commandment. You can be famous for curing cancer or over-tanning your daughter, but you’re never going to get air time on the Howard Stern Show unless Stern can find a way to make you fascinating. Trump got $2 billion in free air time because if you put a camera on him, he says something you can’t help but tweet about.
- Make your fans feel special.
Stern invites his fans to be part of a world that’s almost the exact opposite of the shitty job they’re driving into. There, when your boss yells at you, you can yell back, as long as it’s funny. And in the GOP primary, Trump has proved mostly immune to political facts. His fans believe in him, not the details. Much of this appeal is built on his soft-white nationalism, but a lot more is built on personality and charm — tailored to older, whiter more male Republican voters. If the GOP primary is a bachelor party, then the general election is the wedding.
- Create your own reality — just take shit over.
One of Howard Stern’s greatest assets is that his competition is generally terrible, but also that no one really pointed it out before he did. Stern’s honesty and unpredictability makes any appearance he makes an event. Trump has used Democratic talking points to attack all of his opponents and Republican voters loved it. Trump understood that by being the most anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim candidate on the stage, many conservatives — who have been fed a diet of dog-whistle politics for generations — would never question his conservative credentials. With decades of experience, total shamelessness, and no fear of having to find any job after this, Trump steamrolls over interviewers, presenting lie after lie that goes unchallenged, humiliating reporters who should know better. But he, like Stern, always gets invited back because he makes great TV.
- Your enemies define you.
Stern’s early career was defined by his battles with management, other DJs, the FCC. It turned his show into a daily drama with a relatable hero to cheer for. Trump likewise has no fear of making enemies — in fact, he revels in it. Like Stern, he has feuded publicly Rosie O’Donnell, offering his opponents some of his most stinging gender-fixated insults for attack ads. Unlike Stern, he hasn’t made peace with O’Donnell, who the billionaire attacked again Saturday night in a rally in Washington. This suggests Trump’s biggest weakness and one Stern occasionally suffers from — thin-skin. But Trump’s skin is so thin that we have to assume his organs are orange.
- Be willing to change because that’s what real people do.
This is the main reason why Trump is dangerous for Democrats. He has no loyalty to ideas and no fear of casting off the most unpopular ideas from the GOP platform, which happen be dearest to many hard-core conservatives’ hearts. After tens of thousands of hours of radio, while Stern’s show is still often puerile, it’s also one of the few places Americans can expect to hear adults speaking without posturing, over-production, or self-censorship. Stern treats his audience with respect; Trump, however, often lacks that grace. He lies and reverses himself casually, without acknowledging the twists — yet somehow still gets branded as the “tells-it-like-it-is” candidate. Outrageousness made Stern’s career but authenticity has sustained it. If Trump learns this lesson, Democrats beware.