Election 2016

5 Ways Donald Trump's 'Entertainment Factor' Hijacked American Politics

Note to Democrats: To defeat the master manipulator, study his playbook.

Photo Credit: a katz/Shutterstock.com

How do we understand Donald Trump’s bizarre rise to power? Why him? Why now? When someone rises this fast from joke candidate to the frontrunner of a political party that doesn’t even want him, something is going on. What is it, and it is it a legitimate part of the political process?

To be clear, I am not a fan or admirer of Trump. Like millions of Americans, I find his views at odds with my values and I oppose his candidacy. But this article is not about his personality.

Many presidential elections have been won when a candidate seized upon a strategic advantage in communications or technology. I believe Trump has found such an advantage and is exploiting it right now. His opponents must understand this advantage in order to compete. This article outlines five power tactics Trump is using to accelerate his campaign.

The Structural Advantage of Winning

Trump is not the first candidate to find a technological or communications advantage during a presidential election. The first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon gave a definite visual advantage to the handsome Kennedy. Ronald Reagan used his skill as a Hollywood actor to create a distinct persona and become a media icon. And one reason why 2008 Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was so successful is that his team discovered the hidden power of social media to generate fundraising and grassroots support.

When team Obama recognized how to use the Internet to organize grassroots support and funding, it gave them what we call a structural advantage. While his adversaries were catering to broadcast television, Obama was leveraging the Internet and playing at a different level. By the time anyone else realized it, he had first mover’s advantage and seemed unstoppable.

Now consider how things have changed. In 2008 I remember watching Obama’s swearing-in ceremony on live TV. Eight years later, I don’t own a live TV. All the information I get comes mashed together on my laptop. One of the paradigm changes of the 2016 election is that the Internet has become the greatest source of entertainment in history, and yet there is no longer a distinct category for “news.” News used to be delivered by dedicated media—editorially controlled news television and newspaper. Now when I click for news, I’ll often see video of a presidential debate—on the same webpage as a Saturday Night Live parody of the same debate! Serious news and farce in the same place.

The first candidate to recognize this paradigm shift will enjoy the same kind of first-mover’s advantage Obama’s campaign had in 2008. And so far, that candidate is clearly Donald Trump. Here are five power tactics Trump is using to leverage this advantage and sidestep the traditional political process.

Power Tactic #1: The Kardashian Economy

Any real estate developer or investor knows this pattern: find an undervalued or distressed property, the “worst house in the neighborhood.” Improve it. Sell it. Then reinvest and trade up: use the money to buy the worst house in a classier neighborhood. Repeat this cycle successfully enough times, and you’ll own some classy properties, no matter where you began. It’s math.  

Trump noticed that the cheapest purchase on the Internet was not being used by politicians. That cheap commodity is known as low quality “curiosity clicks.” The click-driven Internet economy is hungry for any content that causes clicks. Why? Because clicks mean page visitors, and a page visit triggers ad revenue for the hosting site. Any story that triggers clicks generates ad revenues for the site. So a news site knows that certain stories will bring guaranteed ad revenue. Welcome to the Kardashian economy!

The Kardashian family is this decade’s epitome of fame without notable talents or achievements, other than the ability to attract low-quality attention and turn it into a revenue-producing brand. Whether you love or hate the Kardashians, you click on the link. Either way, the brand is strengthened, and they make money! Any story that causes annoyance, gossip, controversy, indignation, admiration, or curiosity brings more revenues for the Kardashians and the sites that host their stories.

Trump saw that by tapping into the cheap clicks of the Kardashian economy he would get many times more publicity than any other political candidate. He didn’t have to prove his merits as a leader. All he had to do is create controversy to get unlimited exposure and clicks! And like the Kardashians, it doesn’t matter whether Trump impresses or offends—the clicks generate revenue and visibility all the same. While Trump was generating billions of “Kuriosity Klicks” his political opponents have languished in his shadow.

Power Tactic #2: Target Your Tribe

Once he had “improved” his first investment, the cheap clicks, it was time to trade up. This meant securing a "tribe.” In order to win polls, Trump needed a public that would support him no matter what. Why? He needed poll numbers. So he did his research and found another undervalued property: millions of people who resent the Obama administration. Marginalized white males, the rural poor, the poorly educated, the Rust Belt unemployed, the Tea Party, the anti-government outliers, the outright racists. These groups did not have a significant voice in public life. They were pent up and frustrated. Trump offered to voice their desires, and this won their loyalty.

Traditionally, politicians can’t use mass media to communicate to their special interest groups. Why? Because politicians in a democracy by mandate represent the people as a whole. Leading and communicating to a plurality is a big handicap. Obama caught criticism from left and right alike throughout his presidency because at any given time, some interest group felt ignored. In today’s Internet, we’ve become accustomed to being targeted for our tastes and interests. We expect YouTube and Netflix to anticipate our needs and make suggestions. Messages meant for “everybody” are increasingly ignored.

Unlike professional politicians, Trump targeted his tribe directly. In marketing, we call this segmentation. Your message is more potent if it speaks directly to the needs of the individual. If, for instance, you’re advertising a medicine for the disease Lupus, speak directly to the 2% who are Lupus sufferers. Start your ad talking about the pain of having Lupus, and ignore 98% who don’t have it. They will never be your customer.

Trump ignored his non-customers. He watched who responded to his controversial click-getting statements. He spoke directly to their wishes, hopes and resentments. He encouraged them. He did not judge or disavow their behavior. He spoke to them in a language no one had ever used with them publicly. What politician can give public encouragement to racists? They can’t. But Trump put it all together. The Kardashian economy gives him limitless publicity for supplying the Internet with controversy, and his controversial statements win the loyalty of a marginalized public who agree with his outrageous statements. He rounded up his tribe, won their loyalty by speaking directly to them, and now he has a constituency which give his next “trade up.” Now he can talk about being at the top of the polls.  

Power Tactic #3: The Dark Protagonist

Early in Trump’s candidacy, there was this mystique. We were all in amused suspense. How can he be a candidate? What would he do? What is he capable of? We clicked to learn more at every step.

Traditional politics is about proving your merits as a leader. Voters want to know you can do the job. If you can’t do the job, you should be out of the race. With Trump the environment was different—there was this bemused, tolerant fascination. I remember asking myself, “Why this fascination with an old rich businessman?”

To understand this, we need to consider another paradigm shift online. When TV programming shifted to online, there was a change in viewing habits. The dominant form of entertainment used to be movies and sitcoms. Now it’s the multi-season cliffhanger series like "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Scandal," "Blacklist," "The Good Wife" or "House of Cards." To maximize viewing habits online, the multi-part series developed suspense and wild plot developments. We keep us coming back “to see what will happen” because, now, anything can happen. This changed the kinds of stories being told. It also changed the kind of characters that dominate our communal landscape.

You see, when movies reigned, you had 90 minutes to get to know a hero, their circumstances, their crisis, and how they responded. This kept our heroes rather simple. They were usually good. Nowadays you have 100+ hours to see what Walter White will do in "Breaking Bad." A 100-hour story arc requires more range from its characters. We see the rise of what we might call the dark protagonist.

A dark protagonist travels the entire span from good to evil and back. Walter White goes from timid chemistry teacher to homicidal kingpin, and yet remains human. We watch as politician Frank Underwood in "House of Cards" murders people and steals the presidency. Even the president in "Scandal," a side character, swings from hero to manipulator to criminal to torturer to heartbroken lover and back again. We keep watching these guys!

Dark protagonists generally have some traits in common. They are usually middle-aged white men in pursuit of power, taking great risks along the way. They are ethically in trouble. They learn to hurt and kill people. In other words, they are sociopaths.

We’ve always had sociopaths in our entertainment, but now we identify with them. Over the course of seasons we have time to identify with their desires, their struggles, feel their ethical confusion, and we keep asking, Where will it stop? Will he get away with it? Or has he gone too far this time?

Over the past eight years we’ve developed a communal tolerance for sociopaths. We welcome them into our entertainment hours. Then Donald Trump stepped directly into this archetype. As a reality show character, he was perfect for the part. He seemed to have been transplanted from fiction into real life. Is this a joke? Does he really mean what he’s saying? Can he be stopped? We are amused and paralyzed. And Trump became our new dark protagonist. 

As an entertainer, Trump has an enormous range. He can play the straight man. He can do broad comedy. He can threaten like a thug. He can sound like a billionaire. He can cut someone down in five seconds. He can be gracious. When his mouth is closed, you never know what might come out next. He has mystique.

When Trump shows up at a debate, it’s surreal. The ratings go through the roof (these ratings are about entertainment, remember). The politicians running against him are bewildered. They are not entertainers. Their job is to be steady and consistent, to argue the same points year after year. Next to Trump, they look narrow and boring. They don’t seem to have noticed that, with Trump onstage with them, the genre has shifted. The debate is now a show. Their job is to entertain us, and they don’t know how.

Power Tactic #4: The Boss

How did a billionaire whose entire career was based on supplying the wealthiest 1% with extravagant luxury casinos and elite resorts switch roles so that he is now accepted as the champion of poor working-class whites?

Once Trump identified his tribe, he traded in his brand as a luxury casino owner and put on a red trucker’s cap. There’s an old tradition that when politicians travel, they taste the local food and try on the local hat. It’s a way of saying, “I’m like you, I like you, I represent you.” I don’t think that’s what Trump is saying with his red trucker cap. He’s more like the building owner who puts on a hard hat while speaking to the construction workers. It’s the headwear of the Boss.

With that red trucker cap, Trump assumes the role of the fantasy employer, the rich businessman who will defeat the Chinese and get us our jobs back. He has money. He’ll fight for the company. You want to work for that guy. Note that the Boss is not the positioning of a representative in a democratic country. As Trevor Noah pointed out, it’s more like the positioning of an African dictator. The Boss is not there as a fellow equal citizen to represent you in democratic process. He’s there to reward you for your loyalty and keep you on the payroll.

For the Boss, everything is easy. It only takes will (which he has) and money (which he has). Why? Because a CEO is much more powerful than a president. A president, in Obama’s words, is a middle manager. A CEO, on the other hand, is at the top of his food chain. So for Trump, the job will be easy. His solutions are highly visual and easy: build a wall. Hit ISIL hard. He has great people. His vocabulary is easy: “huge,” “tremendous,” “terrible,” “the worst.” The problems are easy: there’s no global warming, there’s only weather. People who suffer from unemployment, poverty and low pay are attracted to a Boss who promises them safety.

Power Tactic #5: The Gambler’s Fallacy

In a Monte Carlo casino in 1913, millions were lost on one roulette table when the ball landed in the black 26 times in a row. Every time it landed black, more and more bets were put on red until millions were on the table. Why? Because statistically the ball only has a 50% chance of landing black. It’s impossible to keep landing on black, right? Wrong. Millions were lost, and the loser’s flawed logic became known as the “Gambler’s Fallacy.” The fallacy is that you think past actions (ball landing on black) will predict the future (ball will land on red). That sense of prediction is false.

Anyone who has bet in Vegas knows the feeling. You start out optimistic: you might win big! Your first loss seems like an accident. Now it’s two losses, and you’re negative. No problem, the next game will even it out. Play one more, and we quit, right? You just want one more win so you can walk away feeling lucky.

As a casino owner, Trump knows the emotional resistance the gambler has to believing he or she could lose. We’re so invested in our inability to lose, we fail to notice we are losing right now. Trump is the "house” in this case.  

He knew he’d be perceived as a joke. He knew it would be a surreal experience for us. He knew he’d have a year’s headstart of being entertaining. His “political incorrectness” was delivered with just enough humor to amuse and tantalize. As the house, he also knows that what was formerly a joke can become reality. Loss is real.

Suddenly the GOP is panicking that he’s their candidate. How could they have let this happen? Why are their other guys so far behind? Why didn’t they hit him harder, earlier? Paralyzed by their initial disbelief, they kept thinking their card game would play out for them. They didn’t see their losses as they were taking place.

Note: if you find yourself losing money you don’t have at the poker table, it’s time to stop being tantalized by the game. Lose your sense of humor. Stand up and walk out of the casino. Save the money you have.

The Next Trade-Up

When the investment was controversy clicks, Trump traded up to a tribe.

When the investment was a tribe, he traded up to winning poll numbers.

When the investment was winning poll numbers, he traded up to dominating debates.

When the investment was dominating debates, he traded up to winning primaries (when he didn’t debate, it cost him).

When the investment is winning the primaries, he’s trading up to get the support of mainstream politicians such as Chris Christie.

When the investment is mainstream politicians, what’s the next trade-up? Let’s get thinking, guys. He must have a plan. If you don’t figure it out, he’ll keep the advantage all the way through. Will he start bending the GOP to his will? Will he find a way to go mainstream without losing his extremist followers? Or will it be something else? 

What will this dark protagonist do? Click to see what happens next. 

Mark Peysha is CEO and cofounder of the Center for Strategic Intervention

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