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Commentary: How Did Trump Happen?

Among other factors, Trump can thank his TV past, angry voters, mainstream media and the GOP's leaders for his success this election, Todd Domke writes. (Cliff Owen/AP)
Among other factors, Trump can thank his TV past, angry voters, mainstream media and the GOP's leaders for his success this election, Todd Domke writes. (Cliff Owen/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

There is no easy answer to the question: How did Donald Trump become such a political force?

When he first announced his candidacy, few took him seriously. Indeed, even some people who supported him in the early days didn’t think he was running to actually win.

In retrospect, it was a "perfect storm," so to speak, that made possible his surprising success.

Here are the main elements that produced the Trump phenomenon:

“The Apprentice.” His pioneering “reality TV” show was very popular, and so was the sequel, “Celebrity Apprentice.” Tens of millions of people felt they were seeing the real Donald Trump in this highly edited, scripted and contrived program. Of course, they only saw what Trump and his producers wanted viewers to see: an incredibly successful, intuitive, generous entrepreneur and kind father figure. No politician has that kind of exposure and starts off with such a brainwashing of potential fans. (By the way, to appreciate how a “huckster” — to use former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld’s one-word description of Trump — can manipulate public opinion, you should watch that old classic film, “A Face in the Crowd.”)

Alienated, angry voters. In announcing his candidacy, Trump appealed to the voters that Rick Santorum, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, George Wallace and other populist politicians had won before. Many Trump voters are denigrated as just old, bitter, white men – less educated, more likely to be blue collar, but basically people who yearn for the “good old days.” Yet that seems dismissive of the real economic pain that millions of them have suffered in recent decades. Many of these alienated voters don’t just resent and/or fear a loss of income due to trade deals, automation, diversification, immigration, and globalization. They feel alienated in a so-called “knowledge economy” in a mass media culture that mocks their traditional values. They also often feel disheartened by a political system where “leaders” can seem not just condescendingly “politically correct,” but also corrupt – insiders profiteering from a “rigged system” controlled by lobbyists who represent the elites; including elites outside the U.S. They were ripe for an “outsider” who, like Samson in the Philistine temple, could bring down the establishment. They don’t fear upheaval in Washington, D.C., because they feel it couldn’t be any worse than the pessimistic view they already have of the future.

Conservative talk shows. For decades, conservative talk show hosts on radio and TV had been “educating” audiences to view the world in this alienated, angry way. They often appealed to prejudices, fanned fears and mercilessly mocked those who didn’t share “our values.” And that was true when they promoted Trump’s conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t the legitimate president because he was supposedly born in Kenya (untrue: he was born in Hawaii). When Trump became a candidate, conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham fell in love with the incendiary candidate. They became, in effect, Celebrity Apprentices, competing for Trump’s affection. They gave him credibility. They rationalized his bigotry and rejoiced in his every insult and accusation. Whatever childish nickname Trump would give an opponent or critic, they’d parrot. White nationalists did the same in social media.

Mainstream media’s love of ratings. Non-conservative media were surprised that this first-time candidate was so much fun to cover. He was unpredictable, quotable and produced great ratings for their shows. So he was not just a gift from the comedy gods but also the cash goods. What an irresistible combo! The president of CBS summed it up when he said Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” So the mass media that Trump scorned as “dishonest” “scum” gave him the largest in-kind contribution in American history – an estimated $2 billion in free coverage (or, as it is known in the political trade, “earned media”). Trump “earned” the media coverage by delivering rants at rallies and doing countless interviews, including phone-interviews on TV shows.

GOP “leaders” who wouldn’t lead. When Trump first sparked outrage by making bigoted, foolish remarks, GOP opponents criticized him. But when it became clear that his supposed “gaffes” were polarizing the electorate to his advantage, they started responding by, well, not responding. They evaded questions about him, because they were afraid to alienate his fans, and they feared he would give them insulting nicknames and make nasty accusations about them (like Trump implying Ted Cruz’s father might have assisted Lee Harvey Oswald). So the party’s elephant symbol was replaced by the ostrich; GOP “leaders” hid their heads in the sand until it was too late. Then “leaders” that Trump had mocked as “all talk, no action” lived down to his low opinion of them: they endorsed the presumptive, presumptuous nominee. A few Senate candidates have tried to straddle the dilemma by saying they “support” but don’t “endorse” Trump. That seems like the difference between “cower” and “coward.” But apparently that is what “leaders” do when their idea of leadership is being a celebrity apprentice.

Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.

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Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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