Donald Trump is a truly polarizing figure. To some, he evokes an infatuation with a romanticized portrayal of the “Mad Men” society – a time when political correctness was exchanged for an intolerance of anything that isn’t All-American. To others, he spurs utter contempt of the calamitous nature of politics as usual.
Although the Republican nominee is an unrepentant egomaniac, a pugnacious bigot, and a billionaire ironically posing as a populist, he is also a profound figure who has left an irrevocable carbon footprint on American politics. He’s given voters an honest glimpse of the moral decay of a rotting political system.
While the recipient of Politifact’s Lie of the Year may be a policy charlatan and a serial flip-flopper, he could be the most authentic presidential candidate vying for the Oval Office. Trump is no more of a lying, pandering narcissist than any other politician. He’s just dropped the manicured pretense and turned American politics into a parody of itself.
Trump’s presidential campaign is characterized by his brash and extreme stances on immigration and foreign policy. But are they really that different from mainstream positions?
Many Congressional Republicans have long pushed for “enhanced border security.” Trump promised he will “build a wall.” The Bush Administration conducted “enhanced interrogation tactics” that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio favored in the primary. Trump has called for waterboarding and “a lot more.” Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Lindsey Graham, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rubio have either claimed that ISIS wants to end western civilization or have supported a no-fly zone in Syria, increased airstrikes, and up to 10,000 “boots on the ground.” Cruz wants to “carpet bomb” and see if “sand can glow in the dark.” Trump just candidly asserts he would “bomb the s―- out of ISIS.” Even his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S. isn’t that out of step with his contemporaries. Bush and Cruz said they would prioritize Christian Syrian refugees, while 30 governors have requested the halt of refugee resettlement.
Since Richard Nixon pursued the “Southern Strategy” in 1968, the GOP has engaged in what Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-Lopez calls “dog-whistle politics.” In an anonymous interview, former Republican strategist Lee Atwater discussed the use of this coded language:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N――-, n――-, n――-.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘n――-’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Ronald Reagan’s tales of “welfare queens” were a notable staple of his anti-government tirades. The guise of traditional family values and states’ rights has been used to justify denying marriage equality to LGBT members. Hillary Clinton’s “super predators” statement that described African-Americans was used to push a tough-on-crime bill that increased incarceration rates that disproportionately affected minorities. Trump is no different – he has co-opted flowery rhetoric and dragged it down to its most absurd, lowest common denominator. He dropped the dog whistle and went straight for the megaphone.
This drew immediate criticism from his colleagues. Bobby Jindal labeled Trump a “carnival act,” while Rubio insisted the GOP “will not allow a con artist to take over the party of Lincoln and Reagan.” Rick Perry diagnosed Trump’s candidacy a “cancer on conservatism.” In response to Trump’s announcement to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., Speaker Paul Ryan said, “this is not conservatism. What was proposed is not what this party stands for.”
Despite Trump’s continual display of ignorance, short temperament, and boorish antics, these candidates, along with many of their Republican peers, have formally endorsed their party’s nominee, although many of them begrudgingly. While some Republicans are now refusing to acknowledge Trump’s existence, avoidance isn’t condemnation. They’re performing an acrobatic balancing act of using Trump voters for down-ballot elections while saving face from the underbelly of blatant anti-intellectual xenophobia that has surfaced into GOP discourse. It’s political tightrope walking at its most hyper-partisan sycophantism. Trump has shown these men aren’t principled conservatives – they just suck up to power. Or if these Republicans are staunch defenders of cherished conservative values, then maybe the GOP has morphed into a Trumpian dystopia.
Although Trump’s ostentatious self-indulgence is widely criticized, there’s a religious crop of Republicans – Scott Walker, John Kasich, Carson, Huckabee, Perry, Santorum, and Cruz – who have all boldly proclaimed they received word from God to run for president. Really, gentlemen? In a nation of over 324 million people, you’re convinced the all-powerful Christian deity chose YOU to run for president?
Mrs. Clinton isn’t exactly a standard bearer for humility either. In a Meet The Press interview following a claim of her accepting campaign donations from fossil fuel lobbyists, Clinton told host Chuck Todd that she “feels sorry for” young supporters of Bernie Sanders who believe his “lies” without “doing their own research.” Apparently anyone who dares to challenge her public record is automatically an unenlightened, political naiveté. Even in Sanders’s case, it takes a baseline of arrogance to lead a nationwide “political revolution” with hopes to drastically alter the trajectory of American politics.
Trump also made some of the Republican candidates look spineless. His sophomoric inventory of nicknames – including “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “Low Energy Jeb” – completely neutralized his biggest opponents. These candidates spent more time deflecting these labels than broadcasting their platforms. If these men couldn’t even fend off a schoolyard bully insult, why should Americans place confidence in their ability to stand up to lobbyists, special interests, foreign leaders, domestic challenges, and foreign threats?
Meanwhile, the media has ridden shotgun on this cross-country trip of democalypitic cacophony. The mainstream cable news networks may feign PC disgust over Trump’s incendiary remarks toward every conceivable demographic that’s not a white male, but this doesn’t stop them from reaping the benefits of his depraved magnetism. CBS chairman Les Moonves said Trump’s success, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” This love-hate relationship enabled major cable news networks to charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for 30-second spot ads during their respective debates – all of which held record-setting ratings.
Trump has received more earned media – $2 billion worth in ad buys – than almost every other presidential candidate combined, proving America’s mainstream media has a sensationalism bias. Jon Stewart discussed this at the “The Axe Files,” the University of Chicago-hosted politics podcast: “You would want [TV] to be incentivized for clarity. What is it incentivized for? Conflict.”
Since Trump burst onto the scene by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals,” he’s received 64 percent of candidate-focused TV coverage and 54 percent of newspaper stories about Republican candidates. According to Zignal Labs, Trump appeared in 2159 CNN reports within the first six months of his campaign. Political scientist John Sides notes Trump’s high poll numbers are a direct result of outsized media coverage and the amount of attention each candidate received was directly correlated to their poll numbers.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found the media has mainly focused on Trump’s poll numbers, his insurrection against the GOP establishment, and his inflammatory remarks. Harvard’s Shorenstein Center reports most of Trump’s coverage in the media was either positive or neutral, due to the horserace nature of the primaries and journalists’ tendencies to build their narratives around the candidates’ positions in the race. In the seven months leading up to the Iowa primaries, 12 percent of Trump’s coverage was related to his issues and ideology – compared to 34 percent linked to his activities and events, and 21 percent discussing his polls and projections. This portrayed Trump as a Teflon wrecking ball to the Republican establishment, which made him relatable to frustrated voters.
This has challenged the media’s notion of objectivity. Among other things, Trump has feverishly invoked misogyny and racism; he has frequently lied, and he has repeatedly encouraged violence against political protesters. Much of his coverage was often in the form of statements by voters who agreed with his policy positions or personal style. For example, a Washington Post piece quoted a Trump supporter as saying, “When Trump talks, it may not be presented in a pristine, PC way, but … [h]e’s saying what needs to be said.”
In their book, “Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics,” political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Wilder note that the GOP began appealing to authoritarian-minded voters when they embraced traditional values and stood in defiance to major social movements including the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Rights Amendment, Roe v. Wade, and marriage equality. These voters tend to value order and authority and distrust outsiders and social change. When authoritarians feel threatened, they seek strongman leaders like Donald Trump who are punitive and have a simple, forceful leadership style.
The media has normalized his outrageous claims and extreme positions through their reluctance in challenging Trump’s proposals like reinstating “Project Wetback,” proposing a tax plan that would add trillions to the deficit, or to “take out” the families of terrorist suspects. Noam Chomsky states in his book, “Manufacturing Consent,” that mainstream news has an enormous influence on public opinion by determining what is acceptable in national political discourse. In this case, Trump was primed to appeal to a fraction of the electorate who shares his egregious worldview. Since he was largely unchallenged by prominent news anchors and pundits, his ignorance has turned into an endearing virtue for many voters.
But this is the nature of corporate news. Trump’s mediagenic presence boosted ratings and clicks, increased demand and prices for ad buys, and brought unprecedented amounts of attention to the presidential race. This isn’t to say journalists haven’t reported on his lies, or past failed business dealings, or many other flaws – they just haven’t gained traction. The media was financially incentivized to chase the sensational nature of his campaign in order to keep its audience glued to the primaries. This reveals a grave situation.
While Trump’s presence has exposed massive fault lines in American politics and its symbiotic relationship with mainstream news, he’s also revealed a colossal failure in civic participation among the electorate.
French philosopher Guy Debord warned of “The Society of the Spectacle,” a culture driven by image. He argues people are more worried about how they’re perceived, rather than developing substantive personal qualities. Since advertisements perverse reality, they cultivate a consumer society where life revolves around appearance. The proliferation of social media and digital news has saturated the public with seemingly infinite images and blurred the lines between advertisements, clickbait, and journalism. It’s also established a cutthroat race between media outlets to accumulate the most attention. Political news has been thrust into the same realm, turning it into entertainment.
If we’re primed to love spectacle, why not vote for the most spectacular candidate? The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch argues in his piece, “How American Politics Went Insane,” that voters have allowed the most extreme, polarizing voices on each side to dominate the discussion. It’s created a political and news system driven by hyper-emotional reactions that resembles a primetime WWE showdown.
Judging from Trump’s Republican National Convention speech without convenient fact-checking apparatuses like iPhones or the Internet, one would surmise America is under siege by deviant Mexican immigrants and ISIS sleeper cells seeking to sodomize baby Jesus with fistfuls of anti-gun legislation in the name of transgender bathroom equality. Despite the bombastic falsities of his speech and his campaign, his unwavering confidence allows people to feel like he can restore America to its imaginary past glory. Stephen Colbert recently dubbed this “Trumpiness,” because he’s become an emotional loudspeaker for the voices of those who believe they’re becoming increasingly marginalized by globalization and cosmopolitanism.
The acceptance of Trump’s craven mendacity proves this image-driven society doesn’t want facts. Americans choose to project or consume a luminary mirage that they wish to be true. Voters would rather elect someone who embodies something they want to believe rather than someone who reflects the reality of politics. Trump has reduced American political involvement into political voyeurism.
According to Aristotle, civic participation isn’t just a duty; it’s what separates people from animals. However, people are naturally drawn towards their confirmation bias and sensationalism. It takes will power to consume information that may be boring, but crucial to making educated political decisions. But if Americans continue to be hedonistically enamored with Trump’s vile demeanor and regressive positions because they’re entertaining, is the average voter just a mindless content sponge?
Herein lies Donald Trump’s gift to American democracy.
He’s simply the physical manifestation of inept governance, media ratings whoredom, and lackadaisical electoral engagement. Or, to borrow a lyric from Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch,” he’s a “low-flying, panic attack.” In “How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable,” Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi writes that Trump has shredded the last veil of credibility and false righteousness from the presidential process, and exposed our sociopolitical ecosystem for what it truly is. He’s granted voters full admission to the carnival freak show that is contemporary American politics.
Part of the appeal of “House of Cards” is its commentary on the aesthetics and theater of politics. Frank and Claire Underwood are constantly maintaining their images in order to broaden their appeal to voters and manipulate public opinion. The show’s main premise is spectacle drives politics.
German philosopher Hannah Arendt argues appearance is politics and the idea of stripping away appearance to get to the truth is pointless, because they’re the same. Since the days of the ancient Greek agora, politicians have been judged by their rhetoric and actions, meaning their public and private lives are intertwined, and they’re essentially just actors. Arendt said, “Appearance – something that is being seen and heard by others, as well as ourselves – constitutes reality.” Stripping away all the B.S. of politics and media coverage just uncovers more B.S. In the Donald’s case, if you can’t polish a turd, you can at least try to conceal it with Cheeto dust and an overpriced Trump tie made by outsourced Chinese labor.
Americans have cynically acquiesced that its elected leaders will inevitably choose self-gain over the common good and that the media will chase ratings instead of journalistic integrity. Like Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” it’s up to the people to emerge from the shadows and face the truth of what American politics has disintegrated into. The other option is to follow in the wayward steps of Oedipus, choosing to remain blind to the realities of our political climate after decades of blissful insulation.
Donald Trump stands at the three-way intersection of politics, the media, and the American public – where clockwork meets orange. The Trump phenomenon is the perfect concoction of selfishness, ignorance, and bluster, lacquered with nostalgic, faux-patriotic pageantry. This grotesquely awe-inspiring Frankenstein exists because Americans have become complacent in allowing politicians and media to treat governance like a reality TV show. If Trump embodies current American democratic values, then it’s up to each voter to confront this situation honestly by pushing elected leaders to act more honorably and selflessly, demanding that the media prioritizes informing over entertaining, and by valuing facts over feelings.
Maybe that’s the way to make America great again.