Given that the Tuesday Indiana primary has resulted in Donald Trump being the presumptive Republican nominee, there is a lot of speculation — particularly on the internet — as to how the presidential campaign of a boldly vulgar and boorish billionaire became a juggernaut among GOP xenophobes and racists.
Author and columnist Neal Gabler recently wrote a commentary for Bill Moyers & Company in which Trump is portrayed as the emperor of social media. Gabler further proposed, “What FDR was to radio and JFK to television, Trump is to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, et al.” As insightful as many of Gabler’s points are — including Trump’s cunning use of Twitter — Gabler confuses Trump’s relatively narrow use of the internet with candidates that have robustly employed its power and potential outreach. Just examine how the staffs of Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama harnessed the web, for example.
To put it simply, would Trump have risen to become the likely Republican nominee if there were television but no internet? The answer is yes. Swap that question around and the answer is no.
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Trump’s bid for the presidency would not have gone farther than a beetle’s belch without the particular convergence of television and swaggering white guys (and some white women) who are smoldering with racial animosity for their perceived grievances. The permanent guest member of most US families — television — made it possible for Trump to pour the gas out of his cans of megalomania and light the fire.
Trump has relied on one basic tool to create a cult electoral following: television.
In fact, from the time he was late to his own candidacy announcement last June until now, Trump has relied on one basic tool to create a cult electoral following: television. Furthermore, the billionaire has ironically managed to accomplish this feat with generally free coverage based on gasp-inducing barbs, an atmosphere of potential violence, momentum (largely enabled by the focus of mainstream corporate TV news on him) and his celebrity status.
Trump has been the Wizard of Oz masterfully manipulating “political coverage” of the Republican primaries, which were promoted on cable news like prize fights and gladiator contests. He knew that TV political news coverage had evolved into entertainment, spectacle and theater. All it needed was a brazen candidate to breach the thin veneer of news “legitimacy” in order to be at the center of an endless churning of National Enquirer-style stories.
Television is Trump’s medium, in large part because many of his followers are overwhelmingly dependent on TV — whether they watch it online or on a larger screen — for their “news.” He is a secular preacher of the entitled white male. He has mastered harvesting the low hanging fruit of resentment and faltering self-esteem among white folks who think this nation was “taken from them” — when it was actually stolen from an Indigenous population that was nearly decimated. It was also founded on a bedrock of chattel slavery that exploited and brutalized Black enslaved people, mostly in the South, while the North made tidy profits from industries that bought cheap cotton. Trump reassures his fans that they should not only continue to deny their own complicity in perpetuating a false white settler colonialist narrative, but that they should feel justified in harboring resentment, to boot. After all, Trump signals, the United States belongs to the “winners.”
In his argument, Gabler undervalues TV as he tries to make the JFK/TV, FDR/radio and Trump/internet analogies work — although he does concede that Trump has garnered attention from television. However, TV has changed a lot since 1960, to say the least. Kennedy was a handsome, dashing, lofty-sounding candidate covered by traditional journalists in a staid black-and-white medium. Trump is the brawling, blustering actual World Wrestling Entertainment celebrity contestant, former Miss Universe television franchise owner and former star of “The Apprentice.” The state of television journalism has morphed, creating an opportunity for a candidate that embodies its degraded news values.
The state of television journalism has morphed, creating an opportunity for a candidate that embodies its degraded news values.
Both JFK and Trump built their followings through television. Since 1960, however, television news has become solidly part of the networks’ entertainment divisions, for the most part. The distinction between “reality TV” shows, competitive shows composed of so-called winner and losers, nighttime serials, celebrity news, comedy programs and cable news are now blurred. If you peg 1950 as the first step into large-scale television watching in the United States, we have had 65 years to be influenced by what we as a nation view on television. One key question is how much we now reflect the alternative reality of television in our internal narratives, as opposed to television reflecting back to us the real narrative of our nation.
Like the radio was for FDR, the television is for Trump — except FDR, for instance, used the radio to assure families caught in the despair of the Great Depression and then the fear of World War II that there was hope for the nation as a whole. Trump uses television to send verbal and physical cues aimed toward a more limited xenophobic, white audience to kindle hate for the scapegoat, the “other.” Indeed, not only is television more and more the amplifier of a hi-tech carnival, but its reach has extended dramatically. It is now ubiquitous in restaurants, bars, health clubs, airports — even gas stations and supermarkets. You might run into Trump on television while in your doctor’s waiting room.
Gabler states it is easier for misinformation and “decontextualization” to spread on the internet. That is, of course, true, but the Trump voter is not generally interested in whether information is true or not; they are interested in Trump’s explicit breaking of verbal barriers regarding white privilege and xenophobia. He uses coded language to say that white people who support him are winners. The rest of them — Mexicans, Muslims, Black people (referenced in his contempt for Black Lives Matter activists), other people of color — they’re losers. Trump makes this implicitly and explicitly clear.
In the prescient and brilliant 1976 movie Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky), a news anchor has a nervous breakdown and due to a series of sensational outbursts, network ratings unexpectedly spike upward. In time, he becomes a prophet leading an entire city to open their apartment windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” In some telling strategies, the Trump campaign, which has run primarily on the fuel of television, seems to have learned more than a little from the film of 40 years ago.
Many Trump supporters believe the government gives “losers” an unfair advantage by providing them with a boost to be equal or surpass white “winners” who are now in economic distress (regardless of the fact that the plurality of food stamp recipients, for example, are in fact white). That’s what Trump is messaging when he singles out a protester at nearly every campaign event for exercising a First Amendment right, and when he expresses a desire to punch a protester in the face, and when he offers to pay the legal bills of one of his followers who took Trump’s advice and actually sucker punched a Black protester (although Trump later equivocated on that offer).
As Trump frequently and smarmily tells his followers, after expressing contempt for a protester: “When I make speeches, there’s so much love in the room it’s easy.”
When Trump proclaims, “Take Back the American Dream,” this particular dream is one of white governmental and business dominance.
That is because he is the paternalistic strong father figure who will protect the interests of a self-selected family of supporters whose shared bond is being white and angry. When Trump proclaims, “Take Back the American Dream,” this particular dream is one of white governmental and business dominance and the subjugation of people of color to second-class status. All of this is conveyed on television through a variety of techniques, which include Trump’s call-in interviews to morning talk shows that cover the full rounds of national programs on some days. A Trump tweet may briefly draw the attention of a news cycle or two, but it doesn’t alter the basic dynamics of his campaign other than to suck up the oxygen of television coverage from other candidates.
When Trump supporters say that he would never lie, or that he may make a mistake now and then but they support him because “he says what he means,” they mean, “I trust him because I know where he stands, and he stands with the ‘forgotten’ white people.” The “factometer” doesn’t apply to Trump because it is not a question of the veracity of individual statements, or whether he acts crudely. What matters is what his followers believe Trump stands for, which could be paraphrased, “I am one of you, and when I’m in the White House the ‘losers’ aren’t going to get a cent of your money. And I’m going to be kicking a lot of foreigners out of this country, you can be sure of that.” It’s not accuracy that counts; it’s Trump’s attitude.
That’s his platform, that’s his appeal; that is the secular religion that he offers his believers, because, yes, those who cling desperately to white supremacy and xenophobia do often love each other. They are one big exclusionary family.
Trump will likely be the first person to become a presidential nominee of either major party without having held elective office, been a military leader or been a senior government official. He accomplished this by using television news to lure watchers to a candidate who was like a never-ending gaper’s block.
Before Ted Cruz threw in the towel after the Indiana primary, The New York Times reported that Cruz saw some pro-Trump advocates across the street from one of his Hoosier events and walked over and talked with them. After Cruz left, the Times journalist quoted the leader of the Trump supporters as saying, “Anything that Donald Trump talks about,” he said, “that’s what I’m about.”
This man perhaps first met Trump while watching the television set in his living room, and it was on TV that their courtship composed of racial resentment and xenophobia was conducted. Now, Trump speaks for him. It’s a matter of being a true believer in a strong man bent on ensuring the electoral and economic power of white people.
All of this promotion leading to a presumptive nomination — one thought laughable last year — hardly cost the billionaire but some pocket change. The television news executives knew that Trump was like money in the bank for boosting advertising dollars. To the suits in the television news media marketing departments, he is not just a candidate; he is a lucrative, branded celebrity of monumental impertinence who is a jackpot for advertising revenue. Should the television news programs care that in return for enhanced profits, they are assisting in the swelling of a homegrown brownshirt movement?
That is a question, indeed, worth tweeting about.