By Aaron Li
He’s not a serious candidate. The line has been uttered throughout this campaign season in many different tones. Assured derision became incredulous cynicism and eventually hollow denial, as Trump’s campaign lingered and outlasted the doubters time and time again. How has this living caricature become much more than a blip on the primary radar and what does it say about how we choose our Commander-in-chief?
Trump’s longevity comes down to two main factors: cultivated spectacle and an utter lack of shame. People believe that Trump is just a ridiculous man without any filter whatsoever. However, his gaffes and outbursts are actually carefully-timed re-fuellings of his behemoth media presence. Looking back at recent elections, it is clear that the media has hijacked the democratic process. The most memorable moments of the 2012 election (Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, the 47% of Americans that didn’t matter, and Romney’s dogs) had absolutely nothing to do with the actual policies of the candidates. Candidates have of course begun to carefully cultivate their media image; however, Donald Trump is the first to actively prioritize his media presence.
While previous candidates have tried to avoid and minimize scandals and gaffes, Trump has not shied away from controversy. So why is Trump seemingly immune to outrage that would tank the ratings of any other candidate? The key is that Trump does not say sorry and is not sorry. A prime example of Trump’s shield of obstinance occurred back in September and in many ways marked a turning point in the election. Trump remarked that Jeb Bush was soft on immigration because “if my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico,” referencing Bush’s wife, Columba (abcnews.go.com/Politics). This targeting remark could have been a PR nightmare for most candidates. In the Republican debate that followed, Bush demanded that Trump apologize for his comments. In normal civil discourse, Trump would realize his comments were out of line and apologize and Jeb would graciously accept. However, Trump is neither normal nor civil and steadfastly refused to apologize. Jeb was left embarrassed and defeated while Trump continued to shine. Trump’s belligerent irreverence has made him immune to the tut-tutting of the establishment.
Furthermore, many Republican voters are drawn to Trump because, to them, he is a beacon of hope against the overly politically-correct liberal media. He strikes a chord with the persecuted mentality of a sizeable chunk of voters who may have themselves faced criticism for not curtailing their perhaps insensitive voices. While the words of the media suggest a hate for Trump, the actions of media corporations show the opposite. Modern media loves to hate Trump. And who wouldn’t? He brings views, clicks, and ratings wherever he goes. In today’s political world, media pulls all the strings and Trump has formed a grotesque, symbiotic marriage with the press.His image has become almost completely untouchable at this point. He can be despised or loved, as long as he’s not boring.
Trump outlasted the feminist jab from Fiorina and the copycat craziness of Carson because of his masterful management of media. Trump is so securely positioned that he recently didn’t attend one of the key Republican debates at all. It was a brilliant show of bravado, arrogance, and fearlessness. In other words, it was a perfect encapsulation of his entire campaign.
We can learn the most about Trump’s candidacy when we look at everything but him. He has acted as a sort of lightning rod for media attention and thus any image of the rest of the other candidates is inherently warped by his presence. Cruz is the closest “real” candidate at the moment, yet in an election without Trump, he would likely be seen as a wacky extremist. The final effect that Trump’s contrast has on this election is yet to be seen. Another interesting aspect of the 2016 election is that the left has just as much of an outsider candidate, Bernie Sanders. Michael Bloomberg is considering a third-party campaign, and for good reason. With both Bernie Sanders attracting the least establishment liberals and Trump or Cruz attracting the least establishment conservatives, there is a clear path for his campaign. Normally, third-party candidates can do nothing more than split the vote, but should Sanders and Trump or Cruz win the primary, there will be a sizeable chunk of “leftover” voters to snap up.
In many ways, Trump’s campaign shows us exactly what is wrong with our electoral system. The pageantry, insincerity, and the oligarchic nature of the system needs to change.