Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Thursday, October 27, 2016

WASHINGTON — This summer’s political madness was nicely captured by a confluence of events over the last 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’ Megyn Kelly and his confrontation with Jorge Ramos, Univision’s anchor, 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, the 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 reaction 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 dealmaker 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 earlier 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?

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

  • Dominick Vila

    As mystifying and disturbing as Donald Trump’s candidacy and popularity are, the most important part of his strategy, and the political strategy of all the other Republican candidates running for President, is not so much what they are saying, but what they are not saying.
    It is becoming increasingly evident that the GOP decided to focus its entire 2016 strategy on foreign policy and scandals, and that it is avoiding the economy and job creation like the plague. Consider the topics that are dominating the news: E-mails, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, abortion, gay marriage, and the need to replace Social Security, MEDICARE, and the ACA with…nothing! What is conspicuous by its absence is the economy. That is, other than creating jobs by building a fence that could compete in height and length with the Great Wall of China, and with the Berlin Wall in what is says about our society.
    I suspect that, initially, Republican strategists saw Donald Trump as a convenient distraction to minimize political attacks against the Republican candidates who, in their estimation, have a legitimate chance to earn the support of the GOP establishment and get the nomination of that party. Unfortunately for them, Donald did not take the bait and, instead, he has managed to get control of the Republican party agenda, public attention, and full control of the U.S. media.

    • TZToronto

      Add to all that the comfort so many people have with “reality” television, and it becomes apparent that many, especially on the right, see the Trump phenomenon as another reality show–like Big Brother or The Apprentice. Who’s going to be voted off next? Even Fox, with its decision to invite only 10 of the 17 to the adult-table debate, is in keeping with the reality TV format. It’s not who has the best policies. It’s all about the next insult, the next extreme statement, the next “gotcha.”

      • latebloomingrandma

        All part of the continuous dumbing down of America. The Plutocracy’s dream coming true.

  • charleo1

    Mr. Dionne is right of course. T.V. is a business who’s revenue is derived from ratings. And Donald Trump, love him or hate him, is by far the biggest ratings bonanza cable news has experienced since the invasion of Iraq, or before that, 9/11. And a sensationalizing, often slanted left, or right press is a foreseeable hazard perhaps, of having our major sources of information in direct competition with each other for our attention. Combined with the explosion of other delightful distractions, never before available. I wonder for example, how powerful, or effective FDR’s,”Fireside Chats,” would be today? Would we as a Nation be gathering around our devises to hear the powerful words of confidence from our trusted President in a time of great uncertainty? Or would this large portion of us be watching something else? Or a alternate media source that vehemently disagreed with Roosevelt, forecasting our emanate, and certain economic demise, if this demonic vermin in the WH weren’t somehow stopped? We are, in this respect, in uncharted territory. And in need of perspective such as the columnists here attempts to bring. That they the press in this highly competitive atmosphere, are not covering the majority, or the center, but the most strident, hyperbolic, and water cooler worthy. Did you hear what Hillary Clinton said last night in Iowa? She said as President she would work to empower women in the workplace, and extend family leave across to all Americans! Or, in contrast. Trump said if he’s elected he’ll round up, and deport all 12 million undocumented immigrants, end birthright citizenship, deport all their kids, and build an impregnable wall Mexico will pay for! Really? Gee, I’m sorry I missed that. I was watching American Ninja Warrior.

  • FireBaron

    Trumpism? Nay. Trumpery, I say. With any luck, all of these supporters THE DONALD claims to have will prove to be the same non-voters who also watch his (less than) reality shows.

    • Nick

      We will go vote for him. We are not voting for any other republican candidate if Mr. Trump do not get the nomination. The party should know this when they did not nominate Ron Paul in 2012. Instead, we got 4 more years of President Obama.

  • FT66

    Folks are not interested in hearing on policies anymore. This is what politicians have been doing for quite sometime and nothing was done. It looks like voters have instead opt for entertainment may be that can help them feel a bit better. In other words there are a lot of frustrations, anger and desparation going around.