Depending on what happens in Iowa in the next few hours, by the end of the night either Donald Trump will be on his way to securing the Republican nomination or his campaign will have been exposed as a fantasy floated by an over-enthusiastic media, a celebrity spectacle with no real organization or infrastructure.
Regardless of the outcome, Trump’s gift for dominating polls and media coverage over the last six months is unprecedented in recent American history. When he launched his campaign last summer by slowly descending the escalator at Trump Tower, pundits almost universally treated him as a joke whose balloon would puncture once voters began seriously vetting more serious candidates. On the contrary, his numbers have been steadily rising (with only a slight dip in mid-October) since the announcement, and polls released over the weekend suggest that his popularity among likely GOP caucus voters is as high as it’s ever been.
Depending on your point of view, this is either a triumph of the common people and billionaires against the political elite or a catastrophe that presages a new era of darkness and demagoguery in American politics.
I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. But it’s worth noting that the most perceptive and forward-thinking insights on Trump’s campaign, from the beginning, have been written by entertainers and TV critics who recognize Trump’s mastery of image and spectacle, honed by his years hosting one of America’s most popular reality shows. Much of the key to understanding Trump’s appeal is understanding that he’s selling a fantasy, in the grand American tradition of P. T. Barnum, L. Frank Baum and Aimee Semple McPherson.
Thus, regardless of whether you consider his campaign a catharsis or a crisis, his success has much to teach writers and entertainers about winning an audience and the power of wish-fulfillment.
- Trump knew his audience and courted them assiduously
Every time Trump made an offensive statement in this campaign, the pundit and political classes declared it the end of his presidential ambitions. It happened in his announcement speech when he said Mexico is flooding America with rapists and murderers. It happened a few weeks later when he said John McCain isn’t a war hero. It happened when he seemed to suggest that moderator Megyn Kelly was menstruating during a debate, and it happened, most pointedly, when he called for banning all Muslim immigration into the country “until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”
The critics were only wrong because they were basing their assumptions on what’s happened in every presidential race prior to this one. In a traditional campaign, any one of those statements would have torpedoed the chances of a fledgling candidate. But Trump instinctively understood that his appeal didn’t rest on the sorts of people who usually vote in primaries or elections, but in drawing out the people who feel shut out of the political process. He understood that for a certain kind of person—crucially, the kind of person he was courting—saying nasty, offensive things was a virtue, not a drawback. Trump became the principal beneficiary of a media environment where not knowing things and saying mean things makes you a hero rather than a villain.
- Audiences aren’t interested in “nice” people
If you understand, as Todd VanDerWerff of Vox has put it, that Trump isn’t so much a politician as a “reality TV character who’s escaped into a presidential race,” then Trump’s ability to say despicable things and get away with it, even profit from it, makes more sense. Because as much as Trump is selling an ideology, he’s selling a character—an obscenely rich, unfiltered, larger-than-life character. And audiences love it because they’re able to put themselves in the shoes of this character, to pretend that they’re the ones telling off their bosses and flouting political conventions and drinking Manhattan water from golden faucets.
Jeb Bush’s supporters have taken to wondering aloud in the vicinity of reporters why their candidate is losing when he’s such a nice guy, but Jeb’s mistake was in thinking that what audiences want is a nice guy in this election. Not coincidentally, this is also a common mistake made by aspiring writers and storytellers. Samuel Raphaelson devotes a section of his classic book The Human Nature of Playwriting to proving that viewers don’t want a “nice” character, they want a character with whom they can identify, even if that means a character who’s vengeful and petty and lazy. In his own book on storytelling, Into the Woods, John Yorke adds, “There is something immensely attractive in living through a character who does obtain revenge, who is proved to have value or … is finally proved right. The attraction of wish-fulfillment, benevolent or masochistic, can’t be underestimated.”
This is the appeal of beloved characters ranging from Odysseus to Cinderella to Spiderman to Harry Potter—relatable, seemingly normal people who also happen to be immensely gifted, or talented, or ludicrously wealthy (something most people will never be), but who are only human and sometimes use their immense gifts, talents and wealth in the services of spite, pettiness, and vengeance (something most everyone would do, if they could). Trump is following a universally recognizable character script, and he’s killing at it.
- A good villain is crucial to the success of any good story
The moment I began to suspect that Trump might actually have this nomination in the bag came early in the first debate. Fatefully, Megyn Kelly said, “You’ve called women you don’t like, ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals’…”
“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interrupted.
He said it without hesitation, without even really seeming to think about it—and the response from his largely Republican audience was deafening. They loved it. He took a question that was supposed to highlight his own personal bullying and made it about someone else. He sold a counter-narrative, and it stuck: odds are, if you even remember the first debate at all, you remember it because of that moment.
The role of scapegoating in Trump’s campaign has been widely noted. Interviews with Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest that much of the candidate’s appeal rests on a narrative in which Muslims and Mexicans are running rampant in America, stealing jobs, hollowing out the middle class, and committing heinous acts of terrorism.
The morality of these appeals is, of course, horrifying, but in terms of storytelling, Trump’s instincts are sound. The late, great social theorist René Girard wrote that scapegoating appeals to the darkest instincts in our nature, uniting communities against a common threat. But crucially, his disgust at the process did not extend to the realm of literature. Girard held that scapegoating was the ritual foundation of Greek drama, and therefore of all Western literature. We go to the theater, we read stories, because we want to see certain characters demonized by an author and ultimately punished by the heroes. It’s cathartic for a storytelling audience, just as it must be for the audiences at Trump’s rallies—and for those who despise Trump, who have spent the last three or four months crafting a narrative in which he’s the second coming of Mussolini, Hitler, or the dark lord Voldemort.
Now obviously I would rather Trump have stuck to the entertainment world, where demonizing an enemy is a storytelling device and not a dangerous tool of mass manipulation, one of the dark arts of politics. But, six months into his campaign, this is where we find ourselves, and the events of the next few weeks will determine whether and how effectively his patented brand of entertainment can cross over into the political mainstream.