Trump and the media

Donald Trump is a genius. Don’t be fooled into thinking he is a brainless blowhard. The man is following a very rational strategy.

The entire business empire of Trump is built around his name. For years, he has cultivated the image of a successful rich self-made man who gets things done. His name is on his skyscrapers, and he was the star of the reality TV show The Apprentice.

When Donald Trump announced that he would be running for president of the USA in the summer of 2015, he had a wealth of experience in self-promotion and in using the media to his advantage.

At the time, there were over a dozen candidates for the primaries of his Republican Party.

So it was obvious that Trump would not brand himself as yet another politician. To draw the public’s attention to him, Trump knew he had to break with all unwritten rules of politics. He did this by saying things that would mean the end of career politicians. For example, in the speech announcing his candidacy, he said:

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

Notice how he highlights his experience as a real estate tycoon. At the same time, he makes the unheard-of promise that Mexico is going to pay for the wall!

Another departure from the usual political discourse is how Trump labels his opponents. These labels stick in the minds of voters. He called Jeb Bush, brother of former president George W. Bush a “low energy guy”. Every time you see Bush, you are reminded of this, wondering if such a man is fit to be president.

The strategy to break with all rules of the game is rare by definition, but Trump is not the first to try this. Finnish rock band Lordi did the same thing at the 2006 Eurovision song festival. The contestants of the song festival usually play corny pop songs. Lordi won that edition dressed as monsters.

Illustration by Emmy Musschoot

Evidently this innovation creates fierce opponents among more traditional players. The trick is to be so outrageous that you attract voters who would never participate in an election otherwise, whether it is a presidential election or Eurosong. The other votes are split among the other – interchangeable – candidates1.

Let’s get back to Trump. He is very much aware that the show he puts up is good for ratings2. The CEO of the CBS network even admitted that the Trump circus is good for business.

So Trump has found a symbiosis with the media. He uses them to reach voters, the media need hem because he attracts viewers and readers. The New York Times estimated that Trump had received almost 2 billion dollars’ worth of free media coverage by being dominating the news cycle.

Irrespective of your political preferences, you cannot deny that the candidacy of Donald Trump has generated a lot of interesting questions on how democracy works. Scott Adams, the cartoonist famous for the Dilbert comics, was aware of Trump’s game much earlier that political scientists were. While these predicted that Trumps campaign would burn out quickly, Adams had been analyzing how The Donald was applying psychology to his favor. Scott Adams has called Trump a clown genius  [highly recommended piece!] and has written an entire series about Trump as a Master Persuader.

Even if Trump fails to become president, he has forced journalists and political scientists to thoroughly reexamine their assumptions. These are fascinating times for those wanting to learn something new about politics!


  1. This strategy works best when there are many contestants. It is harder to use when there is only one opponent. This means that Trump will probably change tactics later in the race.
  2. And advertising revenue.

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