Noel Whelan: Election shows that publicity is key to winning
Above all else, Donald Trump’s shock victory comes down to his massive celebrity
Donald Trump and sons Eric and Donald Jr attend a “Celebrity Apprentice All Stars” press conference in 2012. The property mogul became a reality TV megastar in 2004 as the ringmaster of “The Apprentice”. Photograph: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
“What does a Donald Trump Presidency mean for the Westmeath community in the US, full story in this weeks issue”. This tweet from the Westmeath Topic on Tuesday illustrates the extent to which the Trump election is a global phenomenon in which all media are seeking the local or fresh angle.
If we are honest, many of us columnists and commentators are at the same thing. We are seeking to analyse or make observation on a range of dramatic shifts in the political and media environment as being somehow illustrated by the Trump success.
The fact that the Republican Party won the US presidency against a Democratic candidate with as much baggage as Hillary Clinton is not of itself a real upset. It’s the fact the Republicans won with Donald Trump as their candidate, and despite the fact that Donald Trump was their candidate, which makes this such an incredible political and media story.
This election was determined in the Electoral College by the fact that sections of the dispossessed white working class vote in the “rustbelt” states left the Democrats and voted Republican and by the fact that Hillary was not as attractive to some elements of the Democrat base as Barack Obama had been.
A number of candidates among those originally contesting the Republican nomination could have attracted those white working class voters to the same extent Trump did. The key question is how Trump became the Republican candidate.
Above all else, Trump’s victory comes down to his initial celebrity and his extraordinary capacity to leverage and magnify that celebrity during the primary. Trump got the nomination because he got so much attention. For decades he was a prominent property mogul who called large buildings after himself. He became a reality TV megastar watched by millions of viewers in prime time as the ringmaster of The Apprentice.
To garner the level of personal publicity which Trump managed throughout his business career, you have to play the good guy or the bad guy. He chose the latter. He had a massive megaphone even before he entered politics. When he suggested that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, people listened.
As a candidate, Trump gained momentum not through advertising spend, political endorsements or campaign organisation, but through free media. Every utterance that made the mainstream cringe earned him massive coverage. He dominated the candidate debates in the Republican primary because the focus was all on him. Indeed, his very participation garnered unprecedented audiences for these debates.
Trump inverted the traditional candidate relationship with the top shows on US television. Instead of his campaign having to beg them for airtime, the programme producers begged him to participate because he was a ratings magnet. Instead of monitoring his rise, much of the media, insecure in their own rapidly changing marketplace, pandered to Trump’s celebrity or simply milked it for maximum audience.
Trump had the “Prince Diana effect plus plus”. His face and distinctive hairstyle on the cover of thousands of magazines boosted flagging circulations. He also managed, very rapidly, to gather a direct Twitter audience on a scale usually only achieved by music stars.
US presidential politics had been distorted and corrupted for decades by the need for big business donations to fund billion-dollar campaigns. Trump didn’t need this. He could position himself as independently wealthy and beholden to no one. Such was his capacity to attract free media that he actually ended up spending relatively little money.
The real surprise, however, came when the election proper began after the conventions in August. At that stage, many had assumed that Trump’s very celebrity would be his undoing, that he wouldn’t withstand the close attention.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump was exposed as probably not having paid federal income tax for years. He was exposed as not only flip-flopping on many issues but having lied about doing so. He was even exposed as someone who abused women. The shock is that this didn’t undermine his candidature. He stayed up in the polls, and other economic and cultural factors at play, as well as Clinton’s weaknesses, ensured his victory.
For more than a decade, advertising and social media experts have written about how “attention” is now the most valuable commodity among the content clutter of our modern world. Trump is the attention seeker par excellence. Not only has he shown that the capacity to attract coverage is now also the most valuable commodity in politics, but he may even have proven that there is no longer such a thing as bad publicity.
The problem for those of a centrist disposition is that, by its very nature, moderate politics is less interesting. Noisier voices on the left and right will always attract more attention. That is one lesson from the US election worth learning and responding to locally.