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Why America can’t get enough of Trump’s campaign of spectacle

NEW YORK CITY – If ever an evening captured the mood-swingy candidacy of Donald Trump, it was here in Manhattan, in the lobby of the flagship tower the man named after himself. ¶ It was Tuesday, April 19, just after 10 p.m. Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was blaring through the speakers. Trump stood behind a podium, dressed in a dark suit and crisp white shirt with a tie that matched the blue on the American flag. ¶ Camera lights illuminated his instantly recognizable hair, which matched the gold-plated escalator behind him. Trump, a long-known brand of billionaire and television star, now looked presidential. He sounded presidential. ¶ As he celebrated a landslide Republican primary victory in New York, his words were measured. He referred to his then-opponent as “Senator Cruz.” This, for any other candidate, would be normal. But – at the risk of revealing something you’d only miss if cocooned in North Korea – Trump is no normal candidate. ¶ One night earlier, during a speech in Buffalo, he pelleted Cruz with references to “Lyin’ Ted.” That’s typical Trump – and, if you study what it takes to pound a belief into someone’s brain, it’s brilliantly tactical Trump.

He’d get back to his old self quickly. The next day, Trump was in Indiana, shooting out more “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary” references.

But on this evening, he played that presidential role. He measured his words. He didn’t call anyone any names. On New York victory night, there was none of it. Just an eight-minute speech while surrounded by dozens of supporters, then a quick exit. Which left everybody wanting more. That’s another hallmark of the Trump candidacy, one that will become even clearer as he heads to Cleveland this week for the Republican National Convention, where he is expected to be officially named the party’s nominee:

We can’t get enough of the guy.

Overloading on Trump is like overloading on sugar. It’s addictive. He speaks, we listen. He may talk about building a wall, punishing women for abortions, keeping Muslims out of the country. We may nod our heads or shake them, we may smile or cringe.

But we still listen.

A recent Pew Research Center study revealed that voter interest in the presidential election is at a quarter-century high, with 85 percent of respondents claiming to closely follow coverage of the race between Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump has made the campaign a spectacle. But that’s only half the answer to how he has managed to reach the heights of American politics and be one election away from becoming the most powerful person in the world.

The rest of the answer lies not in him, but in us. That’s us as in the electorate, the media and, yes, other politicians. That answer resides in our interpretations of fame and fear, in who we watch and who we ignore. There is an intersection in our daily lives of politics and pop culture, and in that place, we feast. If Trump’s candidacy is feeding the beast, we are the insatiable animal.

And we’re exceedingly willing to scrounge for scraps.

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In an interview with The Buffalo News last fall – long before Trump’s nomination seemed a sure thing – the comedian and political talk show host Bill Maher expressed delight with Trump’s candidacy. Not with Trump’s politics – Maher is an unabashed liberal – but rather with the constant churn of satirical content.

“(Trump is) a godsend for me but not for the country,” Maher said. “I always say, what’s good for comedy is bad for America, and vice versa. And I don’t think he’s very good for America.”

Maher then pointed out a Trump characteristic that has since become a hallmark of the campaign: He’s unrepentant. He never says, “I’m sorry.”

“I have to admit this, I even find it refreshing,” said Maher, who in 2002 was fired from his own ABC television show, aptly titled “Politically Incorrect,” for controversial comments in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Maher continued: “Here comes a guy who never says, ‘Oh, I misspoke.’ Who never walks it back. Who never corrects himself. He just doubles down and says, ‘What? Are you kidding? Apology? You apologize to me!’ It’s not really about the content. It’s about the tenor of the debate. On that level, I think people are more than amused. I think they’re delighted by that.”

Maher was prescient on that point. In the coming months, with verbal barbs and voters’ ballots, Trump went on to systematically pick off his seemingly more White House-ready Republican opponents: “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio, and, of course, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, among a dozen others. The race began to resemble a 24/7 version of “The Apprentice,” the NBC reality show in which would-be business executives competed for a spot in The Trump Organization. But instead of being the man in the conference room saying “you’re fired,” Trump was one of the contestants, strategically throwing elbows to knock his way to a clear goal: Simply win.

And just like they did on “The Apprentice,” Americans were watching. Or at least they were aware. “The Apprentice,” now hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, has had mostly middle-of-the-pack ratings during its 14-season run. But it gave Trump a platform to wield what might be his strongest skill of all on the masses: Seizing attention.

“Trump himself, I think, is a great example of an American, absolutely incredible appetite for unmitigated, groveling attention,” said Robert Thompson, a television and pop culture expert at Syracuse University.

Author Ben Parr has been among those watching Trump, and, while he’s not a supporter, he knows why other people are. Parr is the author of a 2015 book called “Captivology,” which explores the science of attention. In his book research, Parr identified seven “triggers” that capture people’s attention. Trump hits them all:

• Disruption: From his promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to his statement that Sen. John McCain – a former prisoner of war – isn’t a war hero, Trump “always finds a way to violate your expectations of how politics is supposed to be done,” Parr said.

• Acknowledgement: By promising to undo bad trade deals and bring back jobs, Trump speaks to a large group of Americans who are “underrepresented and underdiscussed,” Parr said. “Trump, for the very first time, is speaking to them, about their problems, saying, ‘I will fix it,’ ” Parr said. “They see him as a hero for that.”

• Framing: Positioning himself as “always right” – and never apologizing – creates a powerful frame of reference for Trump, especially for that just-mentioned underserved audience. So, too, does his repetition of simple slogans (“make America great again”) and insults. “It’s brilliant on his part to repeat the same phrases, saying Crooked Hillary or Little Marco, because it reinforces the point he wants to make,” Parr said. “If you hear it 50 times, you are always psychologically more likely to believe it to be true.”

• Reward: A brand trying to get your attention may give you reward points. Trump’s reward, for the people who believe in him, is more intrinsic: True or not, he’s made people feel he’ll give them a better life. “That desire for that reward is very powerful,” Parr said.

• Automaticity: His buildings are gilded. His name is on everything, even the candy bars sold at the merchandise store in Trump Tower. His book titles make big promises: “Think Big,” “Think Like a Champion,” “Think Like a Billionaire.” Even his citrus hair conjures feelings of wealth and success. “It’s just the simple, visceral reaction,” Parr said. “It’s a very recognizable name and a recognizable brand. He’s made it so that you know, you listen, when you hear the word ‘Trump.’ ”

• Reputation: See above. “He’s done a masterful job over decades linking success and Trump as themes,” Parr said.

• Mystery: Trump, a master of the media long before “The Apprentice” first aired in 2004, excels at using suspense as a tool of influence. Recent examples: Who is he going to pick as his vice president? (Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was the winner.) Who’s going to speak at the convention? “He’s very good at building up speculation like he did on the TV show,” Parr said.

Missing from Parr’s list of attention-grabbing triggers is relatability. Which makes sense, because for most folks – and especially for those job-hungry workers driving his support – relating to Trump is impossible.

“We’re not looking, typically, to follow people who are like us,” Parr said. Instead, he explained, people gravitate toward experts. We’re not looking to follow a more famous version of ourselves. We want to follow someone who knows more, who can do better – especially when we’re threatened or scared, which, by all accounts, is how much of America feels right now.

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One of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump was Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who represents mostly suburban and rural parts of Western New York. Put another way: Collins represents many of the workers to whom Trump is speaking.

“What Donald Trump has tapped into is that angst, that anger, if you will, that the Empire State is no longer the Empire State,” said Collins, pointing to New York’s falling population.

The congressman, a millionaire businessman and former Erie County executive, was, at first, a supporter of Jeb Bush. But when Trump edged Bush out of the race, Collins threw his support to the billionaire.

“I’m glad I did so, even though some people thought I was nuts,” said Collins, who, since that interview, was named as one of Trump’s convention speakers this week in Cleveland.

Collins said voters have been waiting for “an honest broker” to point out bad trade deals and “the theft of our jobs by China and certainly Mexico.”

“There’s not necessarily any political correctness in the way he’s speaking,” Collins said. “But by God, he’s saying what a lot of people are thinking: It’s about time a presidential candidate threw decorum out the window and called China out for what it is, called Mexico out.”

People are angry, and Trump taps into their anger. On that point, it seems, both sides agree.

Victoria Ross, the executive director of the Western New York Peace Center, calls Trump “a very scary man.” The prospect of his presidency is frightening enough to Ross that she led a rally outside First Niagara Center when Trump visited Buffalo in April.

During a recent interview in her Buffalo office, with a stuffed Gandhi doll on her desk and an orange “Tax the 1%” sign hanging in her window, Ross talked about America’s “fear mongering, hate mongering, war mongering.”

“That’s where Trump is getting all his people,” Ross said.

To her, the problem is rooted not in Trump, but in an American history of war and conflict.

“There’s a level of fear and distrust and even hate,” she said.

And in that swirl of negativity is rooted the rise of an unapologetically blunt billionaire.

“Make no mistake about it: Trump is a phenomenon,” said former Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who was one of the House’s most powerful Republicans during his decade in Congress.

“He has gotten away as a candidate with saying anything he wants,” Reynolds told The News in an interview shortly before the New York primary. “Most candidates would be evaporated by the public for just one or two of those comments. He has been immune to some things he has chosen to say that other candidates wouldn’t be able to say, or wouldn’t say.”

How is that?

“I don’t know,” said Reynolds, who now works for the law firm Nixon Peabody. “I think that’s one of the unique phenomena of the 2016 presidential race.”

Dr. Craig Malkin has a theory. A clinical psychologist and author of the 2015 book “Rethinking Narcissism,” Malkin is “appalled by the rampant xenophobia, sexism, and racism I see in social media by many of Trump’s supporters – but that explains his appeal too. They’re all afraid.”

Most politicians are narcissists, Malkin said, and voters usually can discern the healthy ones from the rest.

“Most of the time we have a good B.S. filter for what sounds reasonable and what doesn’t,” he said in an email interview.

But there’s a wildcard, he said. And that wildcard – that Trump card – is fear.

“When we’re afraid, we often look to a savior to deliver us, someone who has all the answers, someone who can finally empower us,” he said. “The more terrified we are, the more likely we are to put people on pedestals, because if we don’t have the answers, then someone else better – or we’re in big trouble.”

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One of the undisputable truths about Trump is that an overwhelming number of Republican voters think he’s the candidate with the answers. Or at least he has a better shot, in their minds, than the nine governors, five senators, one brain surgeon (Dr. Ben Carson) and one fellow business executive (Carly Fiorina) he surpassed in the primaries.

He won. Got it.

Beyond that, however, Trump is a candidate who requires endless demystification. It’s a Rubik’s Cube of a task that the media will keep trying to solve. And the Trump-addicted audience will be there, largely because the man has turned the race for the White House into the most grandiose of reality shows.

Take that victory celebration in the lobby of Trump Tower on the evening of the New York primary. Trump’s quick retreat precluded reporters from asking any questions. Trump-less, they turned to whomever they could find on the opposite side of the velvet rope that separated reporters from Trump’s supporting crew.

One of the willing interviewees was Omarosa Manigault, better known simply as Omarosa. A cast member – or Trump job candidate – on the first season of “The Apprentice,” she became known for her combative personality. She “captivated the country with her sassy no holds bar (sic) business savvy,” according to her website.

That was a dozen years ago, but given the chance to talk up Trump and bask in the spotlight reflecting off his golden lobby walls, Omarosa took it.

“I’ve sat across the boardroom table from Donald Trump,” she told reporters, “and so I know that he has what it takes to be an amazing leader for this country and he has an incredible vision. But the most important thing that he has is a heart for the people. And I know that for myself because I know the man, not just the sound bites and the caricature that people are trying to paint of him.”

Latching on to the “heart for the people” comment, a reporter asked Omarosa about the divisive effect of Trump’s message.

“You’ve got to crack a couple eggs to make a good omelet, if you understand what I’m saying,” she said.

Had a sketch artist been present, the scene that night in Trump Tower would have lent itself to a caricature of the Trump candidacy. You have a former reality contestant (who, in fairness, is an accomplished, educated woman who has taught at Howard University and, pre-“Apprentice,” worked for then-Vice President Al Gore) courting the media. And steps away, the longtime political operative who is now Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was surrounded by reporters and cameras.

It was a moment of pop culture meeting politics on the home court of a man who has built a brand on blurring the line between business and celebrity, good publicity and bad, reality and unreality.

Trump was famous long before “The Apprentice.” As a younger man, he was known as a playboy businessman, even a sex symbol. The media, hungry for Trump tales, lapped up stories about his marriages and divorces, his lavish penthouse, his bankruptcy and his emergence from it. Trump’s story had a compelling arc even before “The Apprentice” established him as a television star. But was that arrogant-but-likable “You’re fired!” persona reality, or just reality TV?

“In some ways he’s playing himself, but of course in other ways – given the whole nature of this show – he’s playing a fictional character,” said Syracuse University’s Thompson.

And is Trump’s candidacy – with all its bravado and brashness – authentically him?

Like his opponent Hillary Clinton, he has polarized voters. According to an average of nine major polls reported by RealClearPolitics.com, Trump’s unfavorable rating is 60 percent, versus a favorable rating of 34 percent. (Clinton, meanwhile, has a 56 percent unfavorable rating, and 38 percent favorable.)

People are either buying in or scurrying away. But are they embracing or running from the real man? Or just a media mastermind who’s playing a role?

“It seems that is the way Donald Trump works,” Thompson said. “Is this real – whatever that means? Or is this a role – whatever that means? And I think in Trump’s case, it is impossible to separate.”

Trump is already a celebrity in chief. But can he be the commander in chief? Can he operate where the walls are white, not gold, and the boardroom is the Situation Room, not a reality set?

You already know you’ll stay tuned for the answer.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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