Second In A Series On TV in the Age of Trump
From practically the day after Donald Trump’s upset win as President, dozens of writers on both the right and left have been trying to explain how it happened. There have been arguments for his appeal to racist elements on one side, the sexism on another, the worst aspects of our nature overcoming the best, etc, etc.
I actually think the reason Trump became President is far simpler than that. He hosted a successful reality show for more than a decade, which made him a national celebrity. That’s why people voted for him.
This seems too simple to be acceptable. So let’s give some background.
In 2000, Donald Trump made his first attempt to run for President on the Reform Party ticket, the shell of a third party that was left over Ross Perot’s runs for the Presidency the previous two elections. It says a lot about Trump’s level of recognition that he lost that fight to Pat Buchanan.
According to rumor, Trump considered a run for the Democratic Party nomination in 2004. Again, it’s hard to know how seriously he was taking, considering his choice for a vice presidential nominee was Woody Harrelson. (Harrelson has admitted there was at least one meeting about it) This never got out of the planning stage. And no successful businessperson has ever made a credible run for the Presidency. See Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000, Herman Cain in 2012, and Carly Fiorina in 2016.
So what changed between 2004 and 2016? He was the host of The Apprentice.
Neither the right nor the left has ever wanted to consider this the main factor for Trump’s surge starting in 2015. They want to believe in certain demographics of the population feeling one way, and certain others another. To all of them, I would remind them of what Winston Churchill said about the argument for democracy after you spend ten minutes with the average voter. I’m sure the people on CNN and MSNBC and even Fox News want to believe that the average voter absorbs all of the knowledge that comes from then during the news cycle. We know Americans are not that informed. We’ve seen the educational records and stats for years.
Now consider that during George W. Bush’s administration, there were more people involved in the voting process for American Idol than any of the actual elections. We have been a celebrity based culture for a very long time. And the cable news networks have embraced that phase more often by interviewing celebrities and asking what they think of political issues. The average citizen probably couldn’t name one Supreme Court justice, but they could probably name every Kardashian.
I’ve said for years that reality programming has a lot to answer for, if for no other reason that it is just as scripted as the so called scripted shows. (We learned as much from the brilliant satire-drama Unreal). We even know that Marc Burnett spent a lot of effort making Donald Trump seem like a business man after decades of failing at numerous enterprises. Why should we be shocked that millions of Americans chose a reality star as President? Is it any more shocking than choosing an actor as one?
Through all the exit polls during the 2016 Republican primary, not one network ever asked the question that was foremost on my mind: “Did your choice have to do with the fact that the candidate was a celebrity?” No one wanted to ask the question because it would have meant the political process that had been going for years was a fraud. That the American system of democracy is based on celebrity, pure and simple. Part of me to this today wonders if all the votes Trump got for President is based on an equivalency of the number of people who watched The Apprentice.
But I also think that’s only half the story. For the past four years, late night comedians have been raging about how horrible Trump was and what he was doing to democracy. What none of them are willing to say is how fine they were with him running in the first place.
During the 2012 Republican Primary, The Daily Show on multiple occasions practically urged Trump to run for the nomination, thinking it would be entertaining. John Oliver, who admittedly realized just how dangerous Trump was in the early stages of the primary, gave the same vote for during his era hosting the Daily Show. And Stephen Colbert said as much when he was hosting his Report.
And I really think that’s the reason that so many cable networks hosted all of his rallies, certainly in the early days of the campaign. I don’t recall coverage of a Mike Huckabee or John Edwards rally in prime time. But Trump was entertaining. He wasn’t politics as usual, and networks want ratings more than they want to inform. So yes, the cable news networks do bear a certain amount of guilt in promoting Trump, certainly in the early stages.
And I’d also like to remind anybody who thinks Trump cared anything about running for office at all that he ultimately decided not to run in 2012 because he wanted to host another season of The Apprentice. He never cared one wit about politics; he only cared about ratings. That’s why he mentioned in a Presidential Debate that he was still angry about not winning an Emmy. That’s why he and his staff would always boost about how great the Nielsen ratings were for any press conference or interview he gave. That’s why he never cared about being around 40 percent in approval polls. A forty share would be great ratings on TV, and that’s how he measured everything after hosting The Apprentice. Hell, he still cared that his ratings were bigger than the new edition after he became president.
Now I’m not saying those are the only reasons he ran and won. There are issues in both parties that he was able to exploit to his advantage, and there are things he said that appeal to certain elements of our society that until fairly recently, we were able to pretend weren’t there. But I still think this is the fundamental reason for his success. He was in television, he was able to use the media to his advantage, and for far too long television was willing to be used. This is a lesson that not just the news media, but the entertainment part of the medium has to learn.