Three Realities That Made Donald Trump’s Rise Possible

(Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Earlier today a radio host asked me to talk about the impact of Donald Trump’s immense media advantage — about how his instant access to virtually every network facilitated his march to the nomination. I immediately thought of this chart, passed around weeks ago, often to condemn the media’s role in Trump’s rise:

But there’s another way of looking at that chart — rather than saying, “Look what the media did,” I’d argue that Trump took advantage of preexisting trends that made it virtually inevitable that he’d not only dominate media coverage from the start but that he’d enjoy immense advantages throughout the race.

First, pop culture is American culture. Politics is a subculture. This means that even the most prominent of senators and governors typically have to spend enormous sums of money introducing themselves to the American people. Political races tend to involve the process of plucking a person out of obscurity, defining him or her, and then preserving and defending that brand throughout the inevitable opposition attacks.

In this context, gaffes are often fatal, and negative advertising is so effective because the mistake or scandal comes to define the candidate. We saw this reality in the 2012 race. Despite the fact that Mitt Romney had been running for president off and on since 2006, he didn’t break out of the subculture until he had virtually clinched the nomination. For most Americans, he was a blank slate, and thus Democrats could successfully brand one of the most decent and kind individuals in American politics as a malevolent version of Gordon Gekko, willing to literally kill people to make a buck.

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But what if a megawatt celebrity runs for president, a person that tens of millions of Americans have known for decades? We tend to forget how long Trump has been famous. The Art of the Deal came out in 1987, during the Reagan administration, and he was already prominent then. How many movie stars have stayed prominent for three decades? How many singers? How many authors?

Trump was more famous than any single person in political media, including all the major talk-radio hosts. So his gaffes couldn’t define him.

Trump was more famous than any single person in political media, including all the major talk-radio hosts. So his gaffes couldn’t define him. His outrageous statements couldn’t sink his campaign. Indeed, the gaffes often stayed in the political subculture, while Trump remained the dominant force in the much larger pop culture. Call Trump racist and Apprentice fans immediately compare the accusation with the man they watched for 14 seasons. Call Trump stupid, and they remember his decades-long reign as one of America’s most famous billionaires.

While Trump’s lies, policy ignorance, inconsistencies, and crass personal insults lit the political subculture on fire, his feckless opponents spent most of the primary season forgetting that they had to expose him beyond the small world of political junkies and party activists. So they spent tens of millions of dollars attacking the man they perceived as the real threat — Marco Rubio.

Second, there is more than one Republican establishment, and Trump had the largest one in his back pocket. I know I’m guilty of using the term, but it’s time to retire the word “establishment” to define the Republican party’s traditional political and donor class. In reality, the party (and the broader conservative movement) now contains multiple competing intellectual and cultural movements, each with its own leaders, donors, and media outlets.

Trump pulled off one of the great cons in American political history — casting himself as the anti-establishment insurgent while enjoying unabashed fanboy (and fangirl) boosterism from Breitbart, Sean Hannity, Drudge, multiple Fox News personalities, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, and others. Rush Limbaugh spent countless hours boosting Trump (though he’s also said good things about Ted Cruz), and even allegedly “neutral” figures gave him far more attention and sympathetic coverage than they gave any other Republican politician. As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes, the raw political power and collective audience of these individuals and outlets dwarfs any given “establishment” publication or politician.

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The great tragedy of Trump’s Republican establishment is that — unlike mainstream media outlets that are built from the ground up to chase ratings — these “conservative” institutions and individuals were allegedly built around principles. Yes, they wanted eyeballs and page-views, but until this presidential race, many of them took great pride in their ability to attract an audience through the force of their ideas and the strength of their convictions. Indeed, these individuals and institutions used to pride themselves on policing the conservative movement, on calling out the “RINOs” and moderates in our midst.

That all seems hollow now. The pot of audience gold shines just as brightly for Breitbart as it does for NBC or CBS.


Third, constant hyperbole insulated Republicans from the truth. To the extent that politics can break out of its subculture, it typically does so through hyperbole and outrage. On the right, it can’t be the case that Mitch McConnell has a mere tactical disagreement with conservatives. Instead he’s a “eunuch.” On the left, it can’t be the case that conservatives believe there are better paths to liberty or prosperity. Instead, we’re racist, wingnut homophobes.

We’ve defined outrage so far down that we literally lack the short-hand language to describe Trump.

Furious rhetoric is polarizing within the political subculture and numbing outside of it. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everyone is outrageous, then no one is. Hyperbolic insults are hurled with such frequency that they simply no longer connect — unless you’re preaching to your own choir. But when speaking to the other side, such rhetoric has no effect. You say Trump lies? Every politician lies. You say Trump doesn’t understand law or foreign policy or the Constitution? That’s what they say about everyone.

The effect of nonstop hyperbole hit home to me in a discussion with a friend about Trump’s rabid alt-Right following. “They’re racist,” I said — and knew immediately that I had made a mistake. Instantly, my friend rolled his eyes and responded exactly as I would have responded if I knew nothing about the alt-Right: “That’s what people always say about conservatives. I’m tired of hearing it.” Only after I spent time explaining the exact content of the alt-Right attacks on me and my family did my friend understand my point.

We’ve defined outrage so far down that we literally lack the short-hand language to describe Trump. “He’s a super-liar, mega-crass, and hyper-ignorant” simply doesn’t cut it. Nor does the Huffington Post tagline affixed to every single story about Trump:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

This, of course, comes from the same publication that’s hurled many of those same insults at mild-mannered “haters” such as Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio. Segments of the political Left have spent years accusing the Tea Party of inciting violence even while they cheerlead for actual riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and California.

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Yes, there are people who are truly outraged by Trump, but they’re often the people prone to dislike him anyway. As the litany of his gaffes, distortions, and lies makes its way into the wider culture, these natural opponents grow ever-more hardened in their opposition. His base, however, remains immune. While many of his supporters truly don’t care about his lies and feed off his arrogance and offensiveness, there are others who aren’t prone to support those “values” and may well abandon Trump — if they truly believe the accusations or if they believed any other politician was better. When they’ve been loudly told that virtually every other politician is a liar and a buffoon, why would they leave Trump?

#related#Moreover, he’s done such a remarkable job casting himself as the champion of the American working man — altering and adjusting his message to capitalize on news cycles and invariably portraying himself as the toughest straight-talker in the room (and not just about immigration) — that millions of Americans freely acknowledge that he’s an S.O.B. But at least he’s their S.O.B.

It’s easy to blame the media for Trump’s rise, and the media certainly helped. But Trump was the prime mover here, and he found a huge voting bloc that was ready to be moved. As one of America’s most enduring celebrities, as a pioneer in reality television, and as a man who’s made a lavish living off his larger-than-life personality, Trump isn’t just using a greedy media, he’s exploiting the very world he helped make.


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