The frenzy around the combustible billionaire has created the impression of a legitimate candidate, writes media scholar and policy adviser Elaine Carsley for Inside Policy – but that’s not giving voters enough credit.
By Elaine Carsley, Feb. 6, 2016
Donald Trump is a toxic blend of bad hair and bad attitude. He is a caricature of himself, aggressive and indignant, whose sound bites are so provocative that they almost seem contrived. Trump has embraced media comparisons of himself with the ‘Fuhrer,’ has incensed every ethnicity everywhere, all of which is being force-fed by media to the electorate. Everyone is angry. Everyone is engaged.
It’s a reciprocal relationship: Trump supplies the mania, and the media socializes it with unfiltered enthusiasm. And conversations are being had, which is a significant departure from the culture of apathy which has long dominated the dialogue around presidential campaigns. Trump’s approach is polarizing and controversial and questionable, but his ability to capture voters’ attention is fascinating and unprecedented. Simply put, nowhere in the history of ever have candidates been privy to so much airtime.
But the Trump show is unsustainable. Here’s why.
As Trump forays across America, rousing the masses, an important factor is being overlooked: the value of the voter. There are two dangerous ideas bubbling beneath the surface, one which implies that voters will willingly allow themselves to be duped by the campaign spectacle, and the other that indicates an uncomfortably cozy relationship between Donald Trump and the Fourth Estate. While it’s unclear whether they love, hate, or love and hate him, the media have, nevertheless, been cultivating a culture of shortsightedness.
“I have never understood the Iowa Caucus,” Larry King said while still with CNN. Though frequently dismissed as a flyover state, Iowa is the essence of American heartland — it is largely agricultural, culturally uniform and socially conservative. The Iowa caucus has always been considered important because its population is composed of individuals who are believed to resemble the ‘typical’ voter.
Many from the Republican roster were better able to hack it in Iowa — none better than Ted Cruz — their down-homeyness played well when speaking of traditional marriage and school prayer. Despite his second-place finish, the disconnect was still apparent: trying to imagine Trump trotting around in a pig’s trough was a sensorial deterrent; the unapologetic untruthfulness of the visual was off-putting to voters. Even Rick Perry, whose campaign folded several months ago after he declared that “running for the presidency is not an IQ test”, would have had a better feel for what it means to be Iowan, simply because he is a friendly, folksy fellow. Trump, on the other hand, tried to court voters he did not think highly of — and it showed. Primary season is reality TV, and Trump will, eventually, be voted off the island — the question now is when. His haughtiness doomed his hopes for Iowa and will likely finish him off in upcoming primary races.
The Trump and media entanglement is a puzzling partnership. The Donald is garnering the attention he needs to drive his campaign forward, and the media are abuzz with constant controversy and conversation. The lines between campaigning and its coverage are, increasingly, becoming blurred, giving the impression that something real is happening here. But tossing voter intelligence to the wayside is never a good idea.
But here’s a truth: voters are not stupid. Although he may be eating his apple pie at a diner in Des Moines or Manchester or any other small town in America, the voter — and voters from all states — will not have the media speak for them when it comes to electing a president.
In American presidential politics, there is unscientific precedent when it comes to fringe candidates: even the most interesting characters seldom make it to White House. William Jennings Bryan crusaded across America, preaching the Cross of Gold, stumping before it was in campaign fashion, and was twice defeated by William McKinley who ‘campaigned’ from his front porch rocking chair. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party tapped into states rights and segregation advocates in 1948, but his inflammatory rhetoric only appealed to a small percentage of heavily incensed, emotional Southerners, and did not impact Harry Truman’s re-election. Although he captured the public imagination in 1964 by igniting the first wave of a conservative revolution, Barry Goldwater was defeated by an electorate still mourning their slain, martyred President. Voters dictate the political climate; more rational voting almost always prevails in the polls.
Trump will implode; his loss in Iowa is the first indication that voters will not allow themselves to be tricked. It will be a celebration for most, and a further bewilderment for those still confused about how the circus carried on for so long. When the establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, the self-proclaimed anti-Trump, wins the nomination, the party will splinter in various directions, and the Democrats will laugh their way back into the White House. And everyone will still be angry.
Canadians have long been accused to consuming — and, at times, overdosing — on American content. We are fascinated by the spectacle of Hollywood movie stars, become politicians, and, in some cases, business tycoons who host reality TV shows and then run for the Republican nomination. And we observe the 16-month long American presidential campaign cycles with a mélange of curiosity and amusement. Mostly though, in Canada we watch with relief that despite its flaws, our parliamentary system would never entertain high tomfoolery of this sort.
Elaine Carsley is counsellor-in-chief of collegial, an admissions advisory firm that helps students and families find their right college experience. Elaine is a part-time faculty lecturer at McGill University and Concordia University, and her doctoral research focuses on the media’s role in American presidential campaigning. She has served as a policy adviser to international companies, local, state and federal governments, authored various white papers and publications, and collaborated with prominent North American think-tanks.