How the Media Created Donald Trump

As the Iowa caucuses approach, much of the coverage and commentary surrounding Donald Trump’s candidacy shows equal disdain for him and his supporters.

How does a candidate like this, and supporters like these, emerge? It is accurate to write that the Trump phenomenon is a media creation — but not in the way you might assume from the phrasing.

Rather, the Trump candidacy is the result of media forces that have been at work for more than a century. Far from a creation of those forces, his unbridled supporters are a reaction to it.

Let’s look at three different factors that brought us to this point, with the most important one first:

1. Political Media’s Disdain for its Audience

Political scientist John Summers, in 1987, wrote an article titled, “What Happened to Sex Scandals? Politics and Peccadilloes, Jefferson to Kennedy.”

Yes, the article recounts the salacious scandals involving Kennedy as well as Grover Cleveland and Warren Harding. But Summers also sheds light on the 2016 election cycle.

Summers traces a Beltway cooperation between politicians and the media, some might call it a conspiracy, that looked down on the majority of voters as an unruly mob.

Such rabble would overreact to the wrong information (scandal, in this case) to the detriment of democracy. So it would be in the nation’s best interest for these Beltway benevolent elites to control the flow of information and paternalistically guide the unwashed masses in the direction the parties wanted them to go.

You can see this attitude in observations related to the Republican establishment and its response to Trump’s candidacy. Conventional wisdom dictates that eventually they will step forward and restore order, with a more “appropriate,” acceptable candidate.

Trump supporters are rebelling against this treatment and resisting attempts to tell them what to do. Iowa and the early primaries will show us how strong their resolve is.

Whether originating with the media or the Republican party, efforts to downgrade Trump’s candidacy, to the maintenance of the status quo of how primaries “should go,” might have worked in the past. But will they work now?

This is not a broad-brush attempt to indict all political news media and politicians. It merely applies one interpretation of previous research to the current situation. The fit looks promising.

2. The Danger of Multiple Media Choices

In the past, the strategy outlined by Summers could work more easily, because there were fewer news media outlets: one or two daily newspapers per city, three local network television stations with daily 30-minute broadcasts, and a few national magazines and newspapers.

The audience had fewer choices. Particularly in national politics, by working closely together, Beltway politicians and news media could be more successful in the “crowd control” described above.

Now we realize that if the audience seemed passive pre-Internet, it was not an inherent quality. Instead, it reflected the lack of choices available.

The audience is much more active now, and they choose what they want to read from a flood of sources varying in both accuracy and partisan perspective.

Some in my generation look back fondly on those old days, when journalism was a simpler proposition. But such nostalgia provides little comfort; those days are not coming back. The new reality implies a different relationship between journalist and audience — one that is still being worked through.

But today, it’s clearly harder to get the Trump nation to support the “right” candidate, if they’re avoiding the media that are transmitting that message.

3. All Trump, All the Time

The Republican establishment might be desperate to corral Trump and substitute a more acceptable candidate, but the news media are working against them.

That multiplicity of options mentioned above creates a vacuum of content to be filled, and a need to fill that vacuum with engaging content that draws viewers.

To the cable news networks, that means lots of Trump. Earlier this month, Politico noted how reporting on a controversial campaign spot by Trump provided him with $330,000 worth of free advertising.

The constant coverage of his campaign events, and their accompanying drama, reinforces his popularity with his supporters while also minimizing his opponents’ air time.

Beltway critics decry this Trump mania, but the network execs are too concerned about ratings to listen much. When the options were limited to 30-minute newscasts and 48-page newspapers, the content could be managed more easily, and both political establishment and media executives would be happy. But that’s not the case anymore.

For months, pundits have been forecasting that Trump’s candidacy will wane as primary season begins. These are hopeful forecasts from an outdated system of political leadership and Beltway media that maintained the status quo in the 1960s.

Coming out of Iowa, however, we might see something different. We could be seeing one of those watershed moments in political history — a swing comparable to Andrew Jackson in 1828 and FDR in 1932.

More than an entertainer, Trump could emerge as a candidate strengthened by a large, independent support base whose legitimacy must be acknowledged.

A scary mess? I think that’s called “democracy.”