Trump profited from rampant disenchantment with the media and the new power of the self-affirmation culture.
So now Donald Trump will become president of the United States. And this appears to be the moment after the initial shock and dismay has flashed through the media, to ask about why he won. How can it be that someone who so overtly lies and cheats, who ridicules the handicapped and openly displays his sexism, is in fact elected?
How did he succeed in getting people to forget scandalous revelations about his personal life and business – revelations that occurred during a maelstrom of continual uproar and the staccato beat of something new – and turn his clearly imperfect, but by comparison politically astute competitor Hillary Clinton into a symbolic figure of political corruption?
Whoever asks such a question must leave aside the notion that the cause can be derived from a linear, predictable sequence of steps that produces a particular effect. It requires a systematic view, the observation of a network of inter-dependency, because Trump is the profiteer of a radically changed media world.
The Master of the Meta-Message
Trump’s success is a symptom of a disturbing intertwining of current media development and aggressive populism. On the one hand, his rise makes apparent that classical journalism is becoming weaker and losing its authority to interpret. The boundaries of what can be spoken are no longer determined by the established mass media or the protagonists of a bourgeois, traditionally moderate public whose criticism is rapidly consumed without effect.
On the other hand, the top ranks of American investigative journalism ignored the fraudulent and dishonest actions of Trump for much too long and played down a man whose natural habitat is reality television and the glittering world of show business.
No one really took him seriously, possibly due to wishful thinking and a view from within individual filter-bubble, adhering to the motto that declared, “He can’t possibly win!”. And as the balance of power changed step by step, he rose to a unique and powerful discourse supported by 13 million Twitter followers, whipped-up bloggers, radio talk masters and a crowd of supporters who believed the meta-message he constantly repeated: with me, everything will be different, better, greater!
If particular news report irritated him, this master of meta-message and egocentric incantation about the breakup of an era, he dismissed them as the manipulative work of dishonest journalists or (as in the case of the sexist videos) he apologized briefly at first , then later trivialized his statements as locker room talk.
It is apparent that Trump profited from a rampant disenchantment with the media and the new power of the self-affirmation culture, in which like-minded individuals mutually fortify themselves in their rage against the establishment and the injury and hopelessness they experience for their own existence.
It is this climate of suspicion and skepticism toward the media that in fact allowed Trump to ignore the scandalous reports and sweeping attacks and dismiss them as biased, and allowed him to use the same hammering tweets to mock the prestigious newspapers that criticized him intensely.
A Bizarre Symbiosis
In addition, there is the fact that prominent businessmen and television networks massively profited from one another from the first moment of Trump’s candidacy. It was and is a bizarre symbiosis that revealed itself here, the hooligan got his platform, the populist got the gift of permanent coverage.
Why? The answer is that television, delighted about overflowing advertising revenue and staggering ratings that rose as high as 170 percent when the man was featured on a program, show, celebrated Trump in the form of continuous broadcasts; it always rewarded his aggressive remarks by giving them immediate attention, and thus gave him the opportunity to decide this election.
The CEO of CBS television, Leslie Moonves, formulated this disturbing attitude in an interview: Trump may not have been good for America, but he was “damned good for CBS.”
Also belonging to a systematic picture is the fact that an already depoliticized commentatorship helped him to even exist. It allowed him to cover up a lack of expertise with entertaining soundbites and avoid substantive debates.
It Wasn’t about Content
In this election campaign – in many of the reports by leading media as well as other outlets – it wasn’t primarily a matter of political concepts or points of ideology, but instead about questions of personal versus private integrity; it was not about content, but about the interpretation of character and the remote analysis of the candidates in the business of staging their appearances.
Did Clinton seem dishonest and careerist? Did she smile too little? Did she express herself too soberly and stiffly in public debates? And was Trump too easily irritated? Did one have to be afraid of him because he goes off on Twitter at three in the morning in order to verbally drive a former beauty queen into the dust?
Those were the questions it was about. The role of NATO, the economic consequences of a new isolationism, the practical hurdles in the boastful announcement to build a wall on the border with Mexico or in the simple elimination of President Obama’s health care program, even the gruesome reality of deporting millions of illegal immigrants – all of these topics remained strangely vague and oddly underexposed in relation to their relevance. Interpreting personalities from a distance, a form of dirty psychology, however, suggested an equivalence of the candidates that never existed.
Orientation toward the Private Sphere
Certainly Clinton made mistakes. Certainly her handling of emails was careless and many a remark she made was insensitive. However, in contrast to the winner of the election, she had political experience, expertise, diplomatic skill and a comprehensive, established platform that went beyond slogans and mere rhetorical self-empowerment.
This means that first, the depoliticizing of reporting, the orientation to the private sphere, personality analysis and psychology made it possible for a political newcomer like Trump to exist and to finally emerge on top. He is no politician; he is a specialist in simple symbolic communication and in the new and current media who won Tuesday night. Now he will become president.