Before today’s second prime-time Republican primary debate, businessman turned reality TV star turned presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to lead the rest of the GOP field by a wide margin in almost every poll.
Much ink has been spilled to explain Trump’s astonishing rise. Danielle Allen in The Washington Post attributed his ascent to “a solidly right-wing ethno-nationalist voting bloc.” Others say his success stems from an ideological gap between conservative elites and their constituency or from the growing perception that the country is on the wrong track. According to The Economist, some of Trump’s supporters see his boorish behavior as “a sign of authenticity.”
True, there are many lenses through which one can analyze Trump’s success in the polls. But the least analyzed aspect of his foray into politics is one that has taken shape over a much longer time frame: the vanishing distinction between politics and entertainment.
Political life has long borrowed from the theater. Trump’s latest bid is the apotheosis of what historian Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events” in his 1961 seminal book, “The Image.” Boorstin described a pseudo-event as an occurrence that is manufactured mainly to generate media coverage, whose “relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous” and whose “interest arises largely from this very ambiguity.”
Trump’s candidacy is a farcical made-for-television event. His previous political false starts lent an ambiguity to his intentions this cycle that generated enormous media coverage even before he formally announced his candidacy. This was followed by yet another speculative cycle about his possible bid as a third-party candidate.
“Donald Trump is summer’s biggest TV hit, and ratings gold for cable news,” read a recent headline in The Los Angeles Times, synopsizing his appeal. The story described CNN’s giddiness over landing the second Republican prime-time debate, which — with Trump as the headliner — will command steep ad rates. “He’s the Simon Cowell of politics,” Jeff Gaspin, a former NBC executive, said of the real estate mogul’s brand, referring to the former “American Idol” judge. “Why was ‘American Idol’ so successful? Because Simon said, ‘That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard’ and made 16-year-olds cry…Trump has got that unfiltered honesty.”
That might be true. But unlike Cowell, whose success has always been tied to entertainment, Trump is importing entertainment wholesale into electoral politics. His greatest insight was that style trumps substance, especially in the early stages of primary season. (At the Iowa State Fair last month, a typical attendee waited in huge crowds to see Trump “because he’s a celebrity,” and numerous supporters have pointed to his blunt rhetoric as his core appeal.) In an August poll that asked his supporters what they most liked about him, only 14 percent cited his policies.
Trump avoids any discussion of policy specifics, and he openly mocks rivals for their perceived wonkiness, implying that a presidential campaign’s worst sin is not a paucity of ideas but having the audacity to take them seriously. This was evidenced by his recent self-parodying appearance on “The Tonight Show” with comedian Jimmy Fallon, in which Trump jocularly summed up his job creation plan as “I’m just gonna do it” and, when asked for clarification on his economic policy, added, “Look, I’m really rich.”
Trump knows that his disinterest in policy makes him more relatable, not less. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in his 1987 best-seller, “The Art of the Deal.” “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole.” And his unrehearsed style reflects his recognition that “truthful hyperbole” never hurts and pseudo-events have replaced policy as a deciding factor in people’s voting preferences.
Trump’s ability to galvanize popular support has earned him favorable comparisons to Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination. However, no equivalence exists between Sanders, a longtime U.S. senator and progressive activist, and Trump, a brash political amateur with a poor grasp of policy. Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist and scholar who wrote an afterword to Boorstin’s book, suspects Trump initially designed his presidential campaign as a publicity stunt to promote his real estate brand.
“It’s possible he meant the campaign that way,” Rushkoff told me in a recent email interview, “but it succeeded beyond his wildest imagination and now became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Trump’s candidacy has rendered image and reality so interchangeable that some voters have embraced his bid as an exercise in extreme nihilism. Last month an informal survey by The Atlantic quoted several Trump supporters who expressed their enthusiasm with phrases such as “I just want to see the world burn” and “I just want to watch the chaos.”
Over the past half-century, Americans have become more accustomed to vapid, irrelevant questions of style instead of substance, thanks in part to network television. But it wasn’t always this way.
“It was very much an entertainment medium,” media historian Alan Schroeder said of television before the first televised presidential debate in 1960. “It wasn’t a place for serious discourse.” Five decades later, CNN hosted a presidential debate in which no one thought it odd to ask candidates their preferences for pizza crust, soft drinks or reality TV shows.
When such debates — replete with 30-second rebuttals, time’s-up bells, gaudy corporate sponsorships and manufactured conflict — are used to gauge a candidate’s preparedness for office, it is no wonder that we ended up with such a disastrous list of contenders.
Everyone wants a president to have a beer with. But the media-saturated presidential primaries in the U.S. produce candidates who appear to have had one too many. In the process, the public has failed to recognize the unintended consequences of treating entertainers as politicians.
“His collapse could end up being a bigger pseudo-event than his rise,” Rushkoff said, predicting the eventual demise of Trump’s candidacy. “There’s something scary when a pseudo-event depends on rage. Trump is playing with fire, and I could see this getting ugly before it goes away.”
Fifty-four years ago, Boorstin feared that the United States mistook pseudo-events for reality. He would be surprised to discover that the American electorate can tell the difference but prefers the illusions anyway.