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Yet Another Unprovable Theory About Trump’s Political Rise

Perhaps network theory can give us the language to explain why Trump is doing so well

Earlier this week, the New York Times posted some data about Trump’s bought and free media. It was striking:

As the author noted, “Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign.” Trump is far and away the most discussed politico in the 2016 election cycle.

To understand the importance of this figure, it’s worth it to step back one election cycle to 2012.

In comparing how the Obama and Romney elections campaigns responded to events online, political media professor Daniel Kreiss found that Obama’s 2012 campaign was able to more quickly respond to unfolding commentary around political events. In part, this ability to respond was due to social media team’s size and their autonomy. Because of this organizational structure, the team was able to exert what Isaac Reed termed “performative power.”

Performative power is one of three kinds of modes of understanding power within networks. For example, network actors can be powerful if they have a lot of followers or are central within a network, and they also wield power whenever they are able to use resonant language that is repeated by others. But lastly, they can have performative power if they are able to use their network position, along with tropes and catchy language, to say the right thing at the right time to right people, thus defining the event.

The quintessential story displaying the performative power of the Obama campaign can be found in the simple reaction to Clint Eastwood’s monologue with a chair:

Well, what about Trump? Think about his past dust ups in the media when you read this quote from Reed:

In performative power, well-timed acts, “in tune” with the situation, provide actors with another route to a “quantum of social force,” and to “making B do something he would not otherwise do.” Power is performative to the degree that it rests in the particular “eventness” of a specific set of concrete actions. It often works by transforming actors’ expectations and emotions, and thereby (contributing to the) control or coordination of their future actions.

As one of the researchers cited in the NYT article explained, Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments,” he receives free media in every category, from television to Twitter. Trump has established himself within these networks, often in contradistinction to the most powerful gatekeepers, like Fox News. And in having the power to define the media event, he is able to transform other’s expectations and emotions. So, it might be that Trump’s free media is just a reflection of his performantive power.

Of course, I am only spit balling here. But, then again, he was looking weak at the last debate.

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