The New York Times on Friday wrote a lengthy “Political Memo” piece about only one Republican candidate’s prospects in the crowded upcoming presidential debate. The 1,100-word piece noted that Donald Trump’s campaign has “sometimes” resembled a reality TV show. The essay’s two authors, Maggie Haberman and Nick Corasanti, then proceeded to write a piece that read almost exactly like the script of a mid-season reality show episode.
“He refuses to say whom he may single out when the 10 leading primary contenders stand side by side,” they wrote, with the same kind of seemingly feigned deep respect you hear from a narration about something like whether a gross-out show’s leading actor will get out of a vat of insects faster than his nemeses. “He cannot know who will embarrass him. Then again, he suggested, he may just choose targets of opportunity. ‘It depends on the feel,’ he said.”
Experts across the political spectrum profess to be mystified by the skyrocketing Trump campaign. Politico recently published a piece with predictions from 16 of them about how the straw-topped candidate’s efforts will end. One who sounded on target was Mary Matalin, the longstanding Republican strategist, who professed her admiration for Trump’s “authenticity.” That’s part of what I think has thrust this reality show into the forefront of American politics.
The other key ingredient for Trump’s success is that he is a perfect candidate for a world infused with social media and online analytics. Now ordinary people have a voice, any time and all the time. That’s not just because each of us do willfully post links on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and elsewhere. You and I are passively voting with our eyeballs all the time. When a story gets a high view count on a media site, it leads that site to publish more stories on the same topic, further feeding this beast of attention. And young people increasingly get their news on social media, as a Pew study recently found.
And on social media, authenticity matters, sometimes even more than point of view. People are sick of falsity. Even wrongheaded and hateful phlegm is more appealing than the cautious focus-group-tested pap that politicians typically dole out these days. A classic example is Hillary Clinton’s refusal to forcefully endorse Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama’s triumphant deal dialing down Iran’s nuclear weapons effort. She worked on the project herself when she had Kerry’s job. But fearful of offending someone, she seems incapable of putting her heart on the line for something I assume she believes is right.
Trump’s bloviation emanates from some body part other than the heart, but it feels real, compelling, and is undeniably fascinating. An American voter who tells a pollster that they “approve” of Trump is making the same sort of gesture that any of us do when we click “like” on a Facebook post about the death of a friend’s parent. It just means we care. We know what’s real in the world, and we care most about what feels most real to us.
The other candidate who is taking off, to the consternation of the professional pundits, is Senator Bernie Sanders the socialist Vermonter. He doesn’t toe anybody’s line, either, even if his authenticity is the truth of an unreconstructed ’60s idealist. Trump and Sanders have a lot in common, despite their reams of irreconcilable policy differences.
Trump’s continuing progress is testimony not only to our desire for politicians to be real, but of our need to have something, literally, to share. That means “sharing” on Facebook or Twitter, but also sharing a real common experience. That’s why so many avidly tune in to the latest episode of shows like “American Ninja Warrior,” or “The Apprentice,” for that matter. We want to be distracted, entertained, and to do it together.
Some high-minded but tuned-out pundits wring their hands that Trump is distracting Americans from real issues. But saying we should focus on the genuine challenges of immigration reform instead of Trump’s latest insult about Rick Perry’s glasses is like saying we should be talking about Zimbabwe President Mugabe’s multi-decade brutal, selfish, and despotic rule instead of a shamed Minneapolis dentist who killed a lion with a crossbow in that country. That’s apparently what puzzled people on the street in Zimbabwe are saying when reporters tell them that the world is focused on the death of a lion named Cecil that was lured out of one of their national parks. That many millions have suffered because of Mugabe’s spite, mismanagement, and corruption is surely more important than the death of a lion, however symbolic. But there is no force more powerful than the collective “like.”
“‘I think for Donald Trump, a boring debate would probably help,'” Haberman and Corasanti of the Times quote a former Romney adviser saying in their breathless analysis. And it’s easy to make fun of them, except that I eagerly opened the Times myself, hoping for more coverage of the Trump circus. (There’s also a piece there today about his years of behavior and statements that trade in borderline racism.)
Donald Trump may not know a lot of things, but he knows how to make himself part of compelling television and Internet drama. There are few spectacles more interesting at the moment than his candidacy. Whether we like it or not, that, not some highfalutin’ idea of “importance,” is what makes up the news.