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Election 2016

Stumped by Trump’s Teflon Popularity? 10 Reasons Fans Want a Faux-CEO in the White House

Trump’s mystique lies in how reality TV conflates fact and fictitious people.

Fans of “The Apprentice” franchise form Trump’s base, and their dogged allegiance and huuuuge numbers have mystified pundits. Despite constant gaffes, lies, tasteless quips, and insults from the Donald, his base pushes, pulls and sometimes punches, to put their reality TV star into the Oval Office.

Perplexed millions read his latest outrage and ask, how is this even happening? But for citizens of the United States of TV, Trump was no surprise.

Liberals missed the viability of Trump’s candidacy because it developed far outside public discourse, in faithful viewers’ minds.

“There is new evidence,” wrote CNN’s David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief campaign strategist, “Trump’s 14 years as ringmaster of ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ were a nice foundation for his latest venture—at least in the minds of those who watched the show.”

“The Apprentice” ranked No. 1 in its time slot in its first season. An average of 20.7 million viewers watched Trump torment contestants vying for a job in his empire. The Season 1 finale entertained almost 30 million. The show’s popularity dropped every year, but even after a decade almost 5 million tuned in every week.

After 14 seasons, he is as familiar as a fat old uncle. Fans feel connected to Unca Donald. Trump, once New York’s bombastic clown, has gradually become America’s favorite imaginary friend.

Trump’s mystique lies in how reality TV conflates fact and fictitious people. Out of its formulaic format, its “real-fantasy” doublespeak, comes Trump. Fans love this abrasive scripted business suit, America’s CEO. But do they imagine the presidency is a reality TV show: "The White House Years"?

Here are 10 reasons for this man’s puzzling popularity.

1. Fans feel “fired!” and Trump alone can give them back their place in America.

Trump supporters feel robbed. Culturally and economically, they feel America betrayed them. Bewildered and wounded, they apparently turned to TV to explain it all. And a TV hero has stepped up to make it right. Fans need Trump to come to their rescue, because they feel powerless and silenced.

Trump’s bloc wants a voice and their avatar is a loudmouth. They don’t split hairs over what he says, as long as it’s really loud. But who are Trump’s supporters? Aggrieved millions, mourning in America. Polls show that age, class, race, education and anxieties about ethnically dissimilar people all count for less than this profound sense of grief for the voice and place in society they never had, but felt they deserved.

So they’re not primarily racist, sexist or xenophobic. Fear in general—of ideas, changes and other people—is trumped by the anxiety of impotence.

2. Fans don’t know what hit them (but TV won’t tell them).

Trump fans, overall, lack education. Derek Thompson reports in the Atlantic, “Trump's support skewed male, white, and poor…the single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree.” That absence exacerbates their sense that someonedissed them.

In contrast, college graduates are more likely to read for news and fun, and spend less time with their flatscreen. The blogsite Collision Detection reports, “Increasing educational level is almost perfectly inversely correlated with daily TV consumption.”

A weak education hobbles many Americans. Less education correlates with lower income, more frequent jobless periods, particularly in recessions, and slower economic recovery when jobs are more plentiful. Trump’s fans apparently haven’t read how education could open richer, more satisfying relationships and careers to them. They were busy watching TV.

3. Fans feel the grass is greener on the other side of the looking glass.

When life feels lousy, TV offers better stories to “live inside.” Katherine Wheeler studied campus-wide TV use at Georgia Southern University. Her work suggests that people who feel swamped, lonely and uncertain tend to self-medicate with TV.

And the worse they feel, the more likely viewers are to binge-watch. Wheeler’s binge-viewers felt depressed and left out of college life. But Netflix et al. didn’t cause their woes. They “streamed” as a temporary emotional analgesic.

Comfort-bingeing apparently crosses all boundaries.

When freshmen at the historically black college where I teach told me how much they love reality TV, I was frankly surprised. “Duck Dynasty”? As a white northerner, I wondered, Why would young African Americans watch this stuff?

“It’s all new to us here in college,” one student told me. “We watched with our families. It’s like we’re not so far from home.”

Another student added, “Don’t you think Honey Boo-Boo is cute? It makes you feel good just to see her!”

The genre of reality TV allures broadly across many types of content, it now seems to me. Viewers enjoy the ego-stroke of comparing themselves to “those people.” “Lowdown” figures exalt viewers. Swamp people. Kardashians.

Students told me, “You feel like, at least I’m not that bad!”

And when celebrities are involved, “You feel, I’m likethem!”

“But those shows,” I said. “They seem…”

“Racist? Stupid?” Students laughed, “They’re ridiculous!

Reality TV clearly appeals to a broad swath of Americans, but not everyone falls for Donald Trump. My students at Alabama State University avidly watched the first presidential debate. And they felt offended by Trump’s implication that some of his best friends were African American.

“Who’s he trying to fool?” one student said. “He said that because he needs us.”

But Trump’s persona still offers comfort to his TV-generated base. For them, is he a grownup Honey Boo-Boo? The line between celebrity as a familiar face and as imaginary friend is perilously narrow.

4. Donald Trump, a dream come true.

When Trump took his abusive CEO schtick on the campaign trail, people felt like they already knew him. TV watchers who relate strongly to characters, but know they are fictional, experience something called “parasocial involvement.” But when viewers feel their favorite TV folk know them, respond to them and even like them, they’ve slid into a “parasocial relationship,” essentially an imaginary friendship.

Katherine Wheeler's study found that people most alienated from their real lives are prone to fall into parasocial relationships with TV figures. For them, Donald Trump is a dream come true. Their favorite TV boss has stepped off the screen to fight for them.

Do they know who their hero is, really? Fans think they already know him—or they choose not to probe deeper. Fourteen seasons ago when Trump stepped into that reality TV limbo, the gap between show role and celebrity persona faded, and TV-induced Stockholm syndrome began to take hold of viewers.

Fans don’t judge Trump by the mores of a civil society. We need to follow etiquette TV characters can blithely ignore. That loud, volatile lout has spent more time in their homes than any real friend. And fans happily forgive Trump’s lack of manners because he is theirCEO.He would never treat them badly, right?

5. Trump (magically! manfully!) turns pain into anger and fear into aggression.

Their hero has already helped them! Fans’ fear felt weak and painful, but their newfound anger feels strong. Trump has already helped his white-male-skewed avid TV fan-base feel powerful.

But pain doesn’t morph into anger all by itself. Trump leverages power by stoking (often imaginary) fear, then twisting it into fury against anyone who stands up to him.

“Pain combined with anger-triggering thoughts motivates you to take action, face threats and defend yourself by striking out against the target you think is causing you pain,” explains Harry Mills on MentalHelp.net. And Trump offers up plenty of targets: Obama, Hillary, Mexicans, Arabs: his list of “losers” gets longer every week.

Pundits didn’t take Trump seriously as a political force, but his power trick is a time-honored favorite among tyrants. Hitler fomented fear to bond his ersatz-tribe of “Aryans,” and with an easy target, he converted their anxiety to rage. Hitler’s scapegoats—Jews, gays, blacks, artists, intellectuals, liberals, women—look a lot like the people Trump vilifies. And like der Fuhrer, Trump urges action against them. This ploy has already provoked violence. In other words, it’s working for him.

6. Fans feel better already!

It’s also working for fans. America’s imaginary friend, Unca Donald, helps people feel better about their lives. He may not share his plans for ISIS, but we know his plans for America’s losers. 

TV CEO Trump is a textbook abuser. Fans enjoy watching someone else get the kind of abuse they get in real life. It must be especially fun to watch an otherwise untouchable celebrity get yelled at by management. Trump enacts fans’ fantasies of power.

And now this bully may step into the realm of real power. In a few months, Trump will “put down” the forces that have allegedly robbed America of greatness. Will fans get to take part, too, acting out some new (reality TV) version of Krystallnacht?

7. Fans feel Trump knows them and responds to them personally.

He knows them, fans think. Better still, he embodiesand speaks for them. On USA Today’s webpage “Trump Nation,” a 43-year-old “businesswoman and mom,” says, “I see him as a candidate that is actually giving the people a voice and listening to what people want.” He is exactly the candidate she sees him as. He is whatever she needs or wants him to be. In other words, he validates her.

So when he opens his mouth, does she almost feel that she is speaking? His loud and whiny voice is hers. His unsubstantiated claims and blatant lies are her truths.

8. And anti-Trump people just seem ignorant.

Non-fans try and mostly fail to make sense of this strange phenomenon: a TV character might be president.

“It’s clear enough to those of us who don’t like Trump why we don’t like him,” George Saunders opined in the New Yorker. “What isn’t clear is why it isn’t clear to those who like him.” But (funnily enough) Trump supporters don’t care what the anti-Trump camp thinks. To fans, non-fans just seem ignorant.

Mainly, they’re ignorant of the wholeness that TV (finally!) offers. TV gave us Fox News, a kind of ideological mayo to glue together and smooth over the lumpy potato salad of Trump impromptu nonsense, outright lies and vague talking points. Together, Fox and Trump reflect a seamless world in which waning middle-class frustrations, privations, and fears finally make sense.

The erosion of privilege that undereducated white fans have endured is not their fault. Trump blamed someone else.

“He tells it like it is!” say citizens of Trump Nation. Actual history doesn’t matter. For example, Obama was just another American kid when wealthy, stealthy white men tugged on the thread that sewed the middle class together. Nixon knitted together the economies of the U.S. and China, Reagan unraveled financial protections, President Bill sewed up NAFTA, and George W. blanketed us all with the Patriot Act. But now fans can overlook how white male privilege (not Obama) frayed the middle class.

9. The rich, straight, white man card.

From cowboys to cops to the Donald, American TV culture teaches us to identify with wealthy white males. No one wants to be a “loser” in a country that mocks the poor, for example. People can’t blame the rich for poverty if they want to be the rich. It has always been easier to persecute the “other” poor.

And Trump relentlessly plays that “straight white rich man” card, implying a brotherhood of wealthy men. And he has friends. Lots of beautiful, successful friends. Just ask Sean Hannity.

Fans feel a part of that awesome (implied) fellowship. But to buy into Trump’s world, fans must see themselves as he sees them: losers. After all, in his ideology, people who pay taxes, give money to charity or honorably serve their country, especially real war heroes, are all pathetic losers.

Paradoxically, self-loathing helps them share in his heights of glory. In their minds, they are already in the reality TV White House. When Trump asked, "How stupid are the people of Iowa?” his devotees, who often praise his outspokenness, happily overlooked his implicit message about them: “Gimme a break! People who promote a knucklehead must be very stupid!”

10.Bottom line: Fans like him.

Fans believe in him, facts be damned. A Trump Nation member, a middle-aged man, comments, “He must be a successful businessman because he could not have gotten where he is today if he wasn’t.” Politics excites skepticism, but fandom inspires unquestioned acceptance of its idol. Skeptics ask, “If he’s successful, why doesn’t he release his tax returns?” Fans don’t care about evidence of success. They likehim. That’s all the evidence they need.

In devotees’ progressive narrative, even epic failures can be “written off” as steps toward Trump’s ultimate success: the White House. Out on the campaign trail, George Saunders ironically expresses Trump’s apotheosis when he says, “He is blessing us… with his celebrity, promising never to disappoint us.” But Trump fans won’t read the New Yorker,much less note the irony.

Certainly, logic and reason have nothing to do with fandom’s passionate loyalty. Inside that seamless emotional space, the willing suspension of disbelief for TV’s fictional world morphs into a need to believe that their favorite TV character is the real person running for president. In November, maybe they will just turn on their flatscreen and curl up safe inside a manufactured fantasy of power.

Lynne D. Schneider (@lynneschneider) is on the faculty at Alabama State University. She writes on education, activism, media and culture.

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