Obamacare didn’t give us Trump. TV did.

Everyone has a theory on What Caused Trump. Last week, Josh Kraushaar at the National Journal reignited the contentious debate with a piece arguing Democratic overreach during President Obama’s first year in office — particularly with respect to Obamacare — caused Trump. Ezra Klein at Vox responded in turn with a piece arguing that it was actually the conservative response to Obamacare that led to Trump. Over at The Week, Lauren Hansen compiled a comprehensive list of 33 things that have been blamed for Trump’s rise, ranging from John Boehner to the Buffalo Bills. Yesterday, this website ran a post making the case that Trump is the natural outgrowth of the past few decades of American culture.

Some of these arguments are persuasive. Some, not so much. Still, they all miss something crucial. Why are millions of Americans — many of whom have never been politically engaged — thrilled with the candidacy of a fraudulent huckster like Trump? I’d like to offer my own theory: TV created Trump.

On some level, this is obvious. The Trump brand and Trump candidacy wouldn’t be nearly as strong if not for the runaway success of his reality show, The Apprentice. And over the course of his campaign, Trump has proven to be adept at manipulating the media by adopting a capricious, inflammatory rhetorical style tailor-made for the headlines.

But that’s not what I mean when I say that TV created Trump. While there’s no denying he has used the medium to his advantage, it paved the way for his political success long before the first episode of The Apprentice aired. When I say that TV created Trump, I mean that television provided the epistemological conditions in which a candidacy like Trump’s could flourish. The theoretical framework for this argument is laid out by Neil Postman in his 1985 polemic, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a book that lambasted television for ushering in “The Age of Show Business,” thereby reducing much of our public discourse to “dangerous nonsense,” as he put it. The author argued this development would have especially dire implications for the political arena, as “image politics” supplanted substantive, issue-based politics.

Postman didn’t view the pre-TV era through rose-tinted lenses. He was aware that demagogues have existed as long as politics has been around — even the ancient Greeks could tell they were bad news. He wasn’t under any illusion that voters before the dawn of The Age of Show Business were always well-informed and highly attuned to the nuances of political reality. But he also knew that in a democracy, where a leader’s power ostensibly rests with their capacity to persuade, the decline of typography as the dominant medium of public discourse, and the corresponding rise of mass media (especially television), would do irrevocable damage. Not only because mediums like television amplify the most extreme voices, but also because they dilute voters’ capacity to evaluate candidates based on the things that matter. Put another way, few can articulate what they want to hear from a candidate. But everyone can tell you what they want to see in a candidate. That’s image politics in a nutshell.

Donald Trump is the epitome of the image politics. On the campaign trail, he presents himself as an indomitable strongman who will muscle his policies into law by sheer force of will. Most of the time, he doesn’t mention policy at all. He just makes vague promises to “win” and “make America great again” with “good people” and “good management,” pledging to bring his business experience to bear on his governance of the country. In doing so, he has hit on something fundamental to image politics. In his book, Postman writes, in image politics “we are not permitted to know who is best at being President or Governor or Senator, but whose image is best in touching and soothing the deep reaches of our discontent.” The parallels with Trump are self-evident. Trump has managed to capitalize on an abundance of discontent in our country — not by downplaying his obscene wealth, sketchy history and lack of policy credentials, but by touting them as calling cards. He’s a shady, scheming businessman? Good! It means he knows how the laws work. He donated to Democrats in the past? Good! It means he knows how corrupt politicians are. Voters see in him someone who both shares their anger and represents the embodiment of their aspirations. He is everything they are, as well as everything they want to be. It’s the ultimate triumph of image politics, and by extension, the medium that gave rise to it.

It’s not just the perception of the man that wouldn’t have been possible without television. It’s the perception of his policies, too. In this area, Trump has taken advantage of the way television has eviscerated any sense of complexity in our public discourse. From Postman: “The [political] commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast… This is, of course, a preposterous theory about the roots of discontent, and would appear so to anyone hearing or reading it. But the commercial disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument.” We could extend Postman’s argument to any forum of political discourse today. Most televised debates this election cycle, for example, have insisted that candidates limit themselves to one-minute responses and 30-second rebuttals. Especially on the Republican side, where most of the debates have taken place with eight to ten candidates on stage, this is hardly enough time to unpack the subtleties of trade policy, or the vexing problem of illegal immigration, or the geopolitical complexities of our war with ISIS.

Trump merely takes television’s aversion to policy substance to its logical conclusion. Trade deficit with China? Slap a tariff on all Chinese exports. Illegal immigration? Build a giant wall. War with ISIS? Bomb the hell out of them. Health insurance? “Something terrific.” News anchors who try to press Trump for specifics on his plans get flustered when he dodges their questions. They don’t seem to realize that they’re the ones who enable his unique brand of Know-Nothingism in the first place.

Even more baffling to political observers is the fact that Trump’s fascistic tendencies — silencing dissidents, scapegoating minorities, and building a cult of personality — haven’t put a dent in his support. After the current Republican frontrunner retweeted a Benito Mussolini quote a few weeks ago, news networks breathlessly demanded an apology. He demurred, but his poll numbers didn’t budge. The same cycle played out when Trump told his supporters to raise their right hand and pledge fealty to him in what clearly resembled a Nazi salute. Again, Postman could see this coming: “It follows… that history can play no significant role in image politics…In the Age of Show Business and image politics, political discourse is emptied not only of ideological content but of historical content, as well.” Under this logic, it’s no wonder the charges of fascism against Trump don’t stick. Fascism is a political ideology that (at least until recently) was relegated to the dustbin of history. But when accusations of fascism are leveled against someone through an ahistorical medium, they don’t just lose their sting. To a certain extent, they become irrelevant.

All of this might sound like an indictment of democracy itself. It’s not. To paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. But democracy only works when voters can make reasoned, informed choices. As a corollary, democracy fails when voters can’t cut through the bull. And TV serves up a lot of bull. This doesn’t mean we should ban cable, or apply some other unworkable solution. For better or worse, TV is here to stay. Postman knew that as well as anyone. He proposed more education, especially in media literacy, as a long-term solution.

With the once-unthinkable prospect of a Trump presidency looming, we might need to think of something else — and fast.


Jonah Allon is a senior at Tufts University from New York City. He has worked for the New York League of Conservation Voters and was a volunteer on President Obama's 2012 campaign. He primarily writes on the environment, reproductive rights and public policy.

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11 Responses to “Obamacare didn’t give us Trump. TV did.”

  1. Rick B says:

    Look. The battle going on today is between generations who have a very different life style and most importantly, a very different idea of who should by rights run America. The conservatives are the older generation who grew up in an America dominated mostly by small towns and in farming communities. Those communities were last seen as really dominant on TV in the 1950’s with White families living in houses behind white picket fences.

    That older America was a caste society in which if you were born White you were superior and you got handed the things that non-whites had to fight and struggle for. It was a caste society because you were born to a social level and could not leave it. But check the population figures for America. Since WW II the population has more than doubled and ALL of that increase has moved into large cities. Worse, most of those farms from before WW II are now abandoned in the countryside. The jobs people perform in the cities require more education and are a lot more specialized.

    The cities are also largely populated by minorities, and to a greater extent are now run by minorities. White Privilege is now mostly gone in the cities! White Privilege got Paul Ryan his current job in the House of Representatives, but only because the Constitution gives greater weight to rural agricultural-economy votes than it does to city votes – and the writers of the Constitution specifically said that was the reason they created our government structure. They trusted the yeoman farmer more than the city “mob.”

    Now, in spite of the remaining dregs of White Supremacy, an African-American has occupied the White House. Mexicans are leaving the subsistence farms killed by NAFTA and moving to the U.S. (because Mexico has no ability to create industrial jobs – no water, no ports or cheap transportation especially.) Interracial marriage is totally acceptable and not especially unusual – in the cities. The rare individuals born as gay, lesbian, or even transgender are now accepted in society.

    One result is that older White workers are killing themselves off through drugs and alcohol because they cannot adapt to the changes. The angry older whites are fighting as conservatives now. That’s what the current politics is all about. The skinheads Trump is inciting want the U.S. to return to the old days where they did not have to get educated to find a good job, but those days are over and good riddance!

    Trump is emotionally appealing to the last of the White Supremacists, and if he tries to move away from him they will drop him. Trump’s reaction has been to ramp up the violence he incites. There will be more violence, and Trump is going to fail as he tries to move to a kinder, gentler general election position. He has nowhere to go but more violence.

    When Trump gets the nomination he is probably going to take the GOP down worse than Goldwater did. Unfortunately, Ted Cruz is worse – and much smarter- than Trump, and Cruz has set himself to pick up the pieces if Trump collapses before the General Election. Cruz is a dominionist. He fervently believes his father when his father says God has anointed Ted Cruz as America’s next leader. He is going to try to pick up the pieces left by Trump and recreate America as a so-called Christian Nation.

    I think the American politics in the next nine months are going to be truly frightening and quite violent. Trump thinks he can control the violence so that it mostly just shows up on TV. He’s wrong.

  2. Rick B says:

    The “logic” in this overly long sentence is nonexistent, it rather clearly attempts to present a discordant image rather than any form of rational policy. It’s a perfect example of image over policy prescription for the TV generation as described in the article above.

  3. Rick B says:

    People react much more strongly and emotionally to images than they do to policy proposals.

    Trump is just a massive TV image factory demanding total attention from his generally uneducated followers who would rather act than think.

  4. B. Flatt says:

    Teabaggers brought us Trump. He saw the pack and then got in front of them to lead it.

  5. 2karmanot says:

    From Nazi to Dtrumpfzi in only two generations.

  6. 2karmanot says:

    And don’t forget Drumpfo’s evil twin, Der Dtrumpfenfuhrer.

  7. The_Fixer says:

    I don’t think TV created Drumpfo der Clown, he did it himself. TV (and to a lesser extent, print media) introduced us to him in the first place, and enabled him.

    Some of us remember shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. These shows, and the local news segments that were ripped off of them, had Drumpfo and others of his ilk on regularly. During the mid-’80s and into the ’90s, these shows were pretty popular. It was voyeurism on the rich. Several shady characters whose only qualification was their wealth were regularly featured on these shows. It would be interesting to know how many of Robin Leach’s featured rich persons are in jail or on their way to it.

    If not for TV, few people outside of New York real estate and banking circles would really know him. Drumpfo took the opportunity that was presented; he promoted himself, his name, his supposed business acumen and the fact that he was rich to anyone who would tune in.

    His presence on TV goes further back than The Apprentice. In the end, Drumpfo der Clown is a TV performer who has even less depth than Ronald Reagan and a P.T. Barnum sense of salesmanship.

  8. Nicholas A Kocal says:

    Since “Obamacare” is the republican plan created by the Heritage Foundation, the rise of Trump can be directly pointed to the fact that President Obama is an African-American, and according to Trump and his supporters, inferior to white men.

  9. BeccaM says:

    It’s never just one thing. Where we are today is a tapestry which, if you pull the right threads, would otherwise unravel completely.

    It’s not just television, but media in general which has fostered, then nurtured the political campaign of a man running not for President of the United States, but autocratic fascist dictator. And there are a whole lot of Americans who don’t want to be responsible for their own governance — in part because they’ve been told repeatedly since Reagan that our own democratically elected government is evil and wrong and incompetent to do anything. So they’ve been craving a strongman dictator who will tell them he will fix everything, all people have to do is surrender all power to him and he’ll make it happen.

    Obama didn’t create Trump. Neither did the PPACA. But the Republican spittle-flecked rage over the mere existence of a decidedly centrist Democratic African American President did help make Trump’s candidacy a possibility. Same with the creation of the obviously-Republican ‘Tea Party’ movement, which rewarded far-right radicals whose only coherent platform was a promise to sabotage the normal operation of our federal government. Same with GOP leaders in Congress who threw away all comity and decorum in favor of “denying Obama a second term as our top priority,” to use the direct statements of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

    As Naja Pallida indicates below, right wing media and the Republicans have been stoking inchoate rage for decades now. All Trump did was come along and give people targets for that rage — which consists of everyone who isn’t exactly like them. The Republican party has been telling its supporters for a very long time that it’s fine to be prejudiced, to be a bigot. However, Lee Atwater said in the 1980s “you can’t say n*****, n*****, n*****…” but instead promoted the use of racist dog-whistling. Well, now we’ve come full circle and Trump is the kind of guy who will give his supporters what they’ve wanted for more than a generation: Permission to be intolerant bigots, fully and openly.

    I’d also add a major part of Trump’s success has been the almost non-stop FREE coverage he gets on TV. The man has actually raised only a fraction of the funding as the other GOP candidates, because he hasn’t needed it. He gets behind a lectern and vomits his stream-of-consciousness nonsense at the camera for an hour or more — and the news networks (CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox, you name it) cover him 100%, even to the point of preempting the legitimate political candidates.

  10. BeccaM says:

    I couldn’t have put it better.

  11. Naja pallida says:

    Trump is the unbridled id of the Fox Noise channel and what the Republicans have been working very hard to create over the last 20 years or so. The 24/7/365 manufactured outrage, false patriotism, pride in ignorance, omnidirectional anger, and zero interest in any plan for what to do about anything, and outright contempt for anyone who does want a functional society. Aimless rage, with self-gratification as its only purpose. Trump doesn’t “speak his mind”. Trump doesn’t “tell it like it is”. He knows exactly what gullible rubes will happily froth over, and he’s playing his part. It’s just stunning that so many people are falling for such an obvious ploy.

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