Prophecies of Donald Trump’s demise are like waiting for Godot. For months establishment media and political operatives have declared that his comments on McCain, women, Mexican immigrants, and now Muslims would do him in. They have not. Instead, they have done little more than fortify his status. So what is going on? There is no one answer, but understanding both the corporate biases of the media and the ability of Trump to bring traditional marketing strategies to politics are critical. They also explain why Bernie Sanders is stuck in the polls.
In the media — ranging from the New York Times, Washington Post and the Economist to pundits on television such as FOX or NBC — Trump’s rise is attributed to many factors. Some link him to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and National Front President Marine Le Pen in France, seeing Trump as appealing to nativism and political and economic anxiety arising out of both the declining economic fortunes of white middle and lower middle America and the renewed fears of terrorism after the Paris attacks. Trump also benefits hugely from his name recognition and the mediocrity of his rivals, along with their lack of media sophistication. All of these are reasonable explanations. But Trump also is served well by his understanding of marketing and media bias.
Pick up the standard book on business marketing – Philip Kotler’s “Marketing Management.” He and others will tell how FUD – fear, uncertainty and dread – are the cornerstone of how to sell products. “Am I pretty enough? Does this car make me look like a jerk? What will my friends think? Am I attractive enough to women?”
Much of American consumerism appeals to ours fears, uncertainties, and dread. Anxiety sells — as does vanity, envy and worry. The seven deadly sins are better motivational tools than the four cardinal virtues. Trump knows that, and he also knows how to use the media to convey his message. He has done that for a career. The rest of the Republican field are hacks by comparison. In fact, most elected officials dread the news and media, fearing the only time reporters want to speak to them is to report on bad things.
He knows how to speak to cameras
Trump, as the Washington Post reported, is not unhinged, and his statements are not unplanned. He has tested-marketed them on Twitter and in speeches before going mainstream with them. What Trump understands is that presidential politics is more about narratives and marketing than it is anything else. He knows how to speak to the camera, turn a phrase, appeal to FUD. His success is simply in better understanding the media and marketing than others do.
He also understands how — at least in this early stage of the campaign — even bad media coverage is better than none. So much of the polling and success is simply about name recognition. It is about branding. Those who denounce him simply feed into his persona. Attack him and it supports his image of being an anti-establishment populist. He feeds on the same distrust of the media and government that Spiro Agnew spoke of when he railed against “effete intellectual snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
But the other factor benefiting Trump is media bias. For years conservatives railed against a liberal media bias. If that were the case, Bernie Sanders would be leading Hillary Clinton and would be a household name. The media bias in America is not a liberal one but rather a corporate one. All of the major news networks are owned by larger for-profit corporations, which generally share a pro-business bias. Trump’s ideas get play because they both generate profits for the news industry (he is a good headline that sells soap) and because his political views do not challenge a basically pro-corporate business worldview. Unlike Sanders, Trump does not challenge economic inequality, corporate power, or even the legitimacy of capitalism. He does not rail against Wall Street and, contrary to his image, Trump is no friend of working-class America. Trump represents ratings success and safe coverage for the corporate media.
So is Clinton. She is a Wall Street Democrat. In a different era she would have been a Republican with the positions she has. She gets coverage for many of the same reasons as Trump – her name sells soap and she is not anti-establishment. Yet unlike Trump, Clinton is not a master of the media.
Why Sanders doesn’t get much coverage
Now imagine a different world. What if Sanders received as much coverage as Trump? The fact that he does not ought to be proof of a media bias against real liberals or those on the left. He is marginalized by the mainstream media despite the fact that his poll numbers within the Democratic Party are better than Trump’s in the GOP, and that there are more people identifying as Democrats than Republicans. In effect, more people nationally probably support Sanders than Trump. But Sanders is not media savvy and he offers a message that challenges the corporate media.
Overall, Godot may arrive and Trump may collapse. We re still six weeks from Iowa. There is no indication of a Trump ground game and his success seems all air wars and marketing. At some point he needs to show he can deliver the votes. But for now Trump will continue to thrive because of his better understanding of the media and marketing, and the advantage he enjoys from a corporate media.
David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.
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