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Social Science Explains The Mystery Of How Donald Trump Became President

09/11/2016 2:18 PM IST | Updated 11/11/2016 8:43 AM IST
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On 9 November, 2016 Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.

In his last White House correspondents' dinner, Obama jokingly criticized the media for putting excessive focus on Trump, "I want to show some restraint because I think we can all agree from the start he's gotten the appropriate amount of coverage befitting the seriousness of his candidacy.... The guy just wanted to give his hotel business a boost, and now we are all praying that Cleveland makes it through July."

The act of voting can be compared to making a low-involvement product purchase where consumers make a decision based on information shortcuts.

Those who initially dismissed Trump's bid for the republican candidacy as a PR stunt are now forced to re-evaluate the situation. Setting all doubts to rest about the seriousness of his candidacy, Trump remarked, "If I didn't think I could win I would not have entered the race," in a post Indiana primaries election victory interview with veteran CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer.

Deconstructing Trump's appeal

According to Himmelweit et al (1985), the act of voting is just like purchase of goods. They argue that voting is just like any other consumer choice, regardless of whether the voter is ill-informed or well-informed, whether her beliefs are solid or prone to change. So, according to this theory, voters do not really consider the act of voting to be any more crucial than the purchase of a product. According to Radder and Huang (2008), there are two kinds of purchase behaviours depending on the level of consumer involvement: high involvement products are usually expensive and may be considered as long-term investments (example: real estates and cars), and low involvement products (ex: soap, shampoo). Consumers tend to collect more information before the purchase of a high-involvement product. Low-involvement products are purchased upon cursory inspections.

As explained by Downs (1957), voters do not have enough motivation to gather information just to improve their voting choices. They will usually rely on information shortcuts as opposed to in-depth research and inputs from reliable sources. Therefore, the act of voting can be compared to making a low-involvement product purchase where consumers make a decision based on information shortcuts.

According to Somin (2013), for political fans there is little reward in actively pursuing information on political issues. As a result, they are prone to choosing political leaders based on how entertaining they are and whether or not they make the audience feel comfortable with the views they already have about the world and their surroundings.

So if a mainstream TV show like The Apprentice portrays Trump as a successful, level-headed, smart businessman who is well suited for a leadership role, then that is what the masses might be inclined to believe as opposed to hard hitting articles backed up with facts which ridicule or criticize his candidacy.

According to Popkin (1991) voters care more about how presidential a candidate looks than how impressive their political track record is. And when it comes to forming narratives, a small amount of personal information—as opposed to political information— can prove to be much more crucial in forming an opinion in the mind of the voter. Popkin stresses that information that is logically compelling or supported by sophisticated data is habitually ignored by people whereas information that is logically weaker but easily palatable may elicit a strong response. Which means dramatic statements and showmanship often have an advantage over logical arguments and hard numbers. This would explain how Trump's mimicry of an aged Bernie Sanders or his implication that Ted Cruz's father Rafael Cruz may be linked to the assassination of John F Kennedy (based on a photograph in which Rafael Cruz was seen with Lee Harvey Oswald) were far more likely to influence voters than the logical, well constructed fact-based arguments made against him by his political opponents and media pundits.

[People] are prone to choosing political leaders based on how entertaining they are how and whether or not they make the audience feel comfortable with the views they already have...

If Popkin is to be believed, then Trump entered the race with the strongest narrative out of all Republican candidates, thanks to a wealth of personal information about himself made available through television appearances and reality shows. An episode titled "Bart to the Future" of popular American TV show The Simpsons even predicted the Trump presidency 16 years ago, on 19 March, 2000. Writer Dan Greany said he wrote it as a warning, and to him Trump being president was consistent with the vision of America collectively losing its mind as a nation.

This assumption is also supported by Graber and Dunaway (2015), who argue that since the majority is exposed to far more non-political media as opposed to political news coverage, their political image is formed through information gathered via make-believe media, entertainment television and movies.

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich has confirmed the effectiveness of Trump's tactics. He praised Donald Trump for running his campaign cheaper than "anybody in history" and getting more media attention than any other candidate just by "being interesting."Newt also commented that Trump's technique of brutalizing people who oppose him may be unsavoury, but there is no doubt that this technique is working in his favour. (Newsmax, 2016)

Trump's personality and campaign were eloquently described by New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik:

"[H]is personality and his program belong exclusively to the same dark strain of modern politics: an incoherent program of national revenge led by a strongman; a contempt for parliamentary government and procedures; an insistence that the existing, democratically elected government, whether Léon Blum's or Barack Obama's, is in league with evil outsiders and has been secretly trying to undermine the nation; a hysterical militarism designed to no particular end than the sheer spectacle of strength; an equally hysterical sense of beleaguerment and victimization; and a supposed suspicion of big capitalism entirely reconciled to the worship of wealth and 'success.'"

The advantages of negative media coverage

In the early days of audience research, it was assumed that viewers were passive and powerless, being moulded by whatever was being fed via television programmes. However, numerous scholars have come to question this notion after David Morley revealed his active audience theory. According to Morley (1993), the audience is anything but passive. The audience is interacting with the media in a myriad of ways, even more so in the modern landscape of new media where they actively participate and let their views be heard. Not only that, but it is not uncommon for the audience to make selective readings of ideological messages, and making completely oppositional readings from what was originally intended by the encoder.

Audiences who were inclined to vote for Trump may have looked at him as a victim of the media.

So, according to Morley's explanation, just because the audience is being bombarded with anti-Trump messages in both new and old media, they are not necessarily going to oppose Trump. In fact, the effect could be quite opposite. Audiences who were inclined to vote for Trump may have looked at him as a victim of the media. And Trump utilized the negative stories against him very well to portray himself as a candidate being unfairly treated by the media. He routinely referred to the media as "scum" and "very dishonest people" and even boycotted journalists— like Fox's Megyn Kelly and Univision's Jorge Ramos—who asked him questions he didn't like answering or found bothersome.

So why did the media continue to give Trump's presidential campaign such exhaustive coverage? According to political scientist Larry Sabato (1991) these types of media coverage are "feeding frenzies". A scenario where harsh competition compels different media outlets to fill endless hours of airtime with drama-filled audience bait. As Westen (2008, p.35) famously stated, "In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins."

And despite all the criticism of Trump's behaviour, there is no questioning the fact that he has the ability to inspire millions of American people.

Trump was always well aware that his antics, combined with his celebrity status and unusual candidacy, would significantly boost the ratings of media outlets. And since higher ratings mean higher advertising revenue for news networks, they were always keen to cover him. When he refused to show up for Fox News GOP debate shortly after the Iowa caucuses, because Megyn Kelly was going to be co-moderating the debate, the Fox News debate immediately took a big hit in the ratings. And within a few short months, Megyn Kelly had to schedule a meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower to "clear the air." The meeting was brokered by none other than the chairman of Fox News Roger Ailes. Soon after the meeting, Fox News issued an official statement, "Kelly has acknowledged in recent interviews that Trump is a fascinating person to cover and has electrified the Republican base." Shortly after the meeting with Kelly, Ailes himself sat down with Trump in a separate meeting before releasing the aforementioned official statement.

No other candidate has been able to exert this level of control over the mainstream media as Donald J. Trump has. Which begs the question whether politics has become so trivial to the American people that they supported Trump solely based on his entertainment value, or whether they truly believed that his policies could make America great again.

Book and journal references

Downs, A. (1957). An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy. Journal of Political Economy, 65(2), pp.135-150.

Graber, D. and Dunaway, J. (2015). Mass media and American politics 9th Edition. Los Angeles: Sage.

Himmelweit, H.T., Humphreys, P. and Jaeger, M., (1985). How voters decide: a model of vote choice based on a special longitudinal study extending over fifteen years and the British election surveys of 1970-1983. Open University Press.

Morley, D. (1993), Active Audience Theory: Pendulums and Pitfalls. Journal of Communication, 43:13–19.

Popkin, S. (1991). The reasoning voter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Radder, L. and Huang, W., 2008. High-involvement and low-involvement products: A comparison of brand awareness among students at a South African university. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, 12(2), pp.232-243.

Sabato, L., 1991. Feeding frenzy: How attack journalism has transformed American politics. Free Pr.

Somin, I. (2013). Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Governments are Better. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Westen, D., 2008. Political brain: The role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation. PublicAffairs.

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