Donald Trump has a gift for managing news cycles. If his bloated head contains a spark of genius, this is where it shines. Trump understood as far back as 2013 what it would take to execute a political con of this scale: work the media, create controversy, become an impossible-to-ignore circus. This is what Trump meant when he said “it's about the power of the mass audience.”
He's approached his campaign in the same way a producer would approach a reality TV show. It's about spectacle, really. “They will never take the lights off of me,” Trump told a group of incredulous Republicans who didn't believe he could run for president without paid advertising. He was obviously correct: We haven't taken the lights off of him, and doing so is unthinkable at this point, given his position in the race.
On Wednesday, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com dove a little deeper into the Trump coverage, trying to understand how this happened. “Trump has been able to disrupt the news pretty much any time he wants,” Silver wrote, “whether by being newsworthy, offensive, salacious or entertaining. The media has almost always played along.”
Of course, the press has played along – it can't do otherwise. A corporatized media has turned citizens into consumers, and politicians into products. Trump understands this and he acts accordingly – it's really quite simple. His whole career has been about brand management, which is now all the training a national politician needs.
Trump's media-centric strategy has been wildly successful. He's received what amounts to $1.9 billion in TV coverage despite having spent only $10 million on paid advertising. “By contrast,” Silver notes, “Trump's Republican rivals combined have received slightly less than $1.2 billion worth of television coverage, meaning that Trump has been the subject of the clear majority (62 percent) of candidate-focused TV coverage.”
Silver's broader conclusion is that Trump has “hacked the system,” which is to say he's exploited a broken process with a perverse incentive structure. He writes:
“Put another way, Trump has hacked the system and exposed the weaknesses in American political institutions. He's uncovered profound flaws in the Republican Party. He's demonstrated that third-rail issues like racism and nationalism can still be a potent political force. He's exploited the media's goodwill and taken advantage of the lack of trust the American public has in journalism. Trump may go away – he's not assured of winning the GOP nomination, and he'll be an underdog in November if he does – but the problems he's exposed were years in the making, and they'll take years to sort out.”
All of this is undoubtedly true. Our political institutions have failed us. The system is so corrupt, so inert, that it's become more or less unresponsive to the general will. The Republican Party, for its part, has done nothing but stir the pot. By becoming a party of anti-government nihilists, they've conditioned voters to despise the state. “Washington” has become a euphemism for everything wrong. But that's only because Republicans sought to break the government (via brinkmanship and obstructionism) in order to reproach the Democrats for mismanaging it. The result is a large bloc of voters who literally prefer anyone other than a politician - experience and credentials be damned!
Thus it's no surprise Trump has inched his way to the top of the GOP. Everything about our political climate incentivizes his approach. The Balkanized media guarantees people will continue to get the information they want, not the information they need, which further undermines trust in the institution. And the so-called mainstream media will persist in covering the circus, because that's their business. It's about shareholders and ratings – and nothing besides.
Trump has indeed exposed these problems. What Silver doesn't say, but certainly implies, is that this is only the beginning. Others will follow Trump. The problems he's laid bare aren't going away. So long as the system remains unchanged, a Donald Trump or a Sarah Palin or a Herman Cain will inevitably emerge. Trump is a force of nature, and his blend of amorality and shamelessness is rare, but future hucksters will learn from his campaign. We may see the end of Trump in November, but we haven't seen the end of the crisis he personifies.