Manufacturing Trumpiness

Curator's Note

Whatever else we might glean from Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, it has exposed the limitations of the national news media and illustrated Trump's ability to exploit those limitations on his way to the GOP nomination. In particular, Trump has manipulated a number of institutional characteristics of the post-network-era news media in order to garner massive amounts of free publicity. And while much of that publicity is negative-as when Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough angrily cut to commercial during one of their interviews-this negative attention actually allowed Trump to define himself against the establishment scolds who criticized him. Thus, Trump capitalized on three features of cable news: (1) its dependence on ratings and Trump's ability to deliver higher ratings, (2) its role as a gatekeeper associated with reinforcing Washington political norms, and (3) a fragmented media environment in which viewers are increasingly skeptical of political media. For these reasons, I found the recent Morning Joe interview with film director and liberal activist Rob Reiner to be simultaneously insightful and frustrating. Reiner pinpoints many of the problems that enabled Trumpiness-the echoes of Colbert's concept of truthiness" are intentional here-to exist. In particular, Reiner is attentive to the ways in which news divisions increasingly came to rely on higher ratings when they were redefined as profit centers. He also points to Morning Joe's self-proclaimed role as a "news show of record," a status that should confer on them the ability to influence or "dictate" (to use Willie Geist's somewhat sarcastic formulation) how people should vote. However, because Trump's campaign is based upon a populist anti-politics built upon resentment, this institutional authority no longer holds. In fact, the clubby insiderism of Morning Joe helped to reinforce Trump's status as an "outsider" despite his status as a wealthy real estate mogul and reality TV star. As a result, Reiner's argument falls apart when he demands that cable hosts challenge Trump with facts, to confront him on his false assertions. While it remains urgent-and essential-to remain vigilant to the racist discourses that permeate the Trump campaign, Trump has exploited these attacks in order to construct a narrative of personal victimhood, one that has placed him just one, admittedly very large, step away from the presidency. ?


Great post. I think you really nailed what I was alluding to at the end of my post for yesterday about the superficiality of the news as revealed in its coverage of his doctor's report. What your clip, and the contextualization of it, demonstrate is that Trump, with his Trumpiness, simply represents the larger societal shift toward a society of spectacle. Trump is the embodiment of our profit centered, spectacle-based "news" system, thus is very difficult to use it as a tool to critique him. I am not sure that number three is really a key feature itself as much as a symptom of a larger shift in audience needs. It seems to me that the skepticism of political media is actually an increased desire for escapist entertainment born of social instability and a feeling of impotence. Officially the U.S. has "recovered" from the collapse of 2008, yet most people have not seen their lives improve significantly, the systems seems to be very much the same as it was leading up to the crash, and people feel like those folks meant to fix the system (whether tea party folks on the right or "progressives" on the left) have not been able to do so. Trump and his Trumpiness are products of a social moment as much as a media moment. Perhaps if Bernie Sanders had been able to capture similar media attention, rather than getting largely shut out of the media for the first half of his campaign, his brand of leftist populism would have reached folks in the way that Trump's "rightist" populism has.

One other element here in "Trumpiness" is the authoritarianism. To be clear, so far, Trump has only managed to appeal to a large but vocal minority, one that is attracted to his bluster and his grievance-based claims of white male victimhood. The coverage is superficial, perhaps, but I would also say that when it "digs deeper" and someone like Chris Matthews refuses to relent, it still becomes caught in a cycle where Trump can claim to be a victim of a "mean" and "biased" media.

Yes, Chuck, I agree with your reasons for the rise of Trump but I would also blame the American public and the Republican Party. The rise of Trump and Trumpism should not be viewed in isolation. it seems to me that Trump's surprising and enduring viability in this election indicates an inability on the part of a great number of Americans to accept that America is not static---that it is ever evolving to meet the demands of an increasingly diverse (and global) society --- and that they must adapt with it. As an alternative, what Trump offers is the age old nativist impulse to scapegoat immigrants, people of color, and anyone else who believes in inclusion and accountability for the welfare of the Earth and all that exists on it. Trump's vision of America sees the country as a shriveled and increasingly ruined iteration of the "leader of the free world" ---one that asserted its dominance over other nations with impunity. Indeed, he is merely the unvarnished embodiment of a Republican party that has long offered certain disaffected members of the American electorate consolation that's all of their troubles emerged from misguided government policies---internationally at American accountability and domestically at assuring equal opportunity access to America's bounty for a plurality of citizens. In this view, the choice is clear. It is Trump because the other party, the Democrats---the party Trumps's followers see as increasingly capitulating to demands for inclusion---is unacceptable. For those Republicans disaffected with Trump---well, they would sooner stay home on Election Day.

Chuck, this is an interesting post. It makes me think about the limits of journalistic fact-checking, especially on TV. I still think about Trump's claim to have seen "thousands" of people cheering in New Jersey after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. No outlet could find evidence supporting it. Trump used something minor as support -- which the author retracted when it was brought up -- which then led to Trump apparently mocking the author who is disabled (as I type this, I can't believe I'm referring to a major presidential candidate). How can something this egregious go by? Is it the news cycle? Is it the TV news failing to effectively set the record straight? I'm sure the aspect you mention in your post, how the authority and establishment status of the media, plays in to this. Or is Trump, as I hear often on CNN, "teflon" and nothing will stick? (Rarely would I compare Trump to Bernie Sanders, but the going against the media strategy is something they have in common, with Sanders often lambasting the "corporate media.") Another aspect -- coverage is coverage, negative or positive. Do interviews like the one with Mr. Reiner only feed the beast?

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