Trump and the Triumph of Popular Entertainment

John Gapper

March 2024

About The Speaker

John Gapper (HF 1991-2) is weekend business columnist of the Financial Times, writing a weekly column, along with features and interviews including Lunch with the FT. He is among its most senior writers, having served as chief business commentator and associate editor, as well as covering banking, media and employment.

He is author of All That Glitters, about the fall of Barings bank, and two novels: A Fatal Debt and The Ghost Shift. His many awards include the Harold Wincott prize for financial journalism and the Gerald Loeb award for business commentary. He has worked in London, New York and Tokyo.

Summary

John started his presentation by noting that Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America published in 1835 said…

From time to time indeed, enterprising and ambitious men will arise in democratic communities whose unbounded aspirations cannot be contented by following the beaten track. Such men like revolutions and hail their approach, but they have great difficulty in bringing them about, unless unwonted events come to their assistance.

John highlighted key aspects of American culture, which created a backdrop to Trump’s popularity, and events which came to his assistance.

Celebrity is integral to the American culture. America is very large and it is much harder to be famous in a large country. To be famous, for yourself or your brand, you need to break through a lot of noise. The efforts of individuals and the competition can lead to a super-star effect that is increasing impact for a very few. Much of this takes place in Hollywood, or in the recorded music industry; take Marilyn Monroe or Taylor Swift as examples.

Being No 1 means being the best known figure in your field. Donald Trump fully understood this as he developed his inherited property business. He made his company so well known that if the general public were asked to name the best developer in New York, many might name him. Most people in the business itself would not.  Hosting the Apprentice gave him national celebrity.

In a two party system institutional support matters. Being a celebrity has helped others with political aspirations gain ground and party support; most commonly emerging from Military roles, such as the presidents George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Harry Truman or from Hollywood such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became governor of California.

Others have understood this too, such as Obama and Blair. If you have natural charisma and combine that with institutional understanding, you can govern well. Incidentally, Obama’s role in Trump’s determination to stand for president is significant – the White House correspondents’ annual dinner and ‘Roast’’ where Trump was humiliated gave him a strong revenge motive.

Part of generating celebrity is the relationship with the media. During Trump’s rise to prominence the media was changing from an institutional focus to a personal focus; more coverage was about Biden beating Trump, as opposed to the Democrats beat Republicans.  Trump used the print media but he could not control it. With the rise of social media he had direct access to greater audiences. The media also changed as competition hit hard, seeking stories that attracted readers/viewers/listeners – often by moving to one side of political debate. The loss of print advertising gave an economic push to these changes.

With the change in the economy after the 2008-09 financial crisis, job insecurity and a growing sense that the old days were better, the scene was ripe for a character like Trump. The “unwonted event” that Tocqueville refers to for a revolution were, in this case, globalisation and job insecurity, immigration and transformation of media.

The Apprentice started on American TV in 2004 and with its strapline “You’re fired!” gave Trump a tough Alpha male profile. Tocqueville said “Here and there, in the midst of American society, you meet with men full of an almost wild and fanatical enthusiasm, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time, strange sects arise, which endeavour to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”

Trump has many aspects of the wandering preacher and evangelist. He arrived on the campaign trail with techniques that constantly captured attention, forcing the media to cover him. He does not pretend to be a man of the people, he’s not one of you, but he understands you. He is much like a cult leader. He is a comedian. He uses physical gestures, demeaning nick names (‘Ron DeSanctimonious’, ‘Little Rocket Man’, ‘Low Energy Jeb’  and others), and good comic timing to bring people in on the joke.

Biden is genuinely blue collar, but Trump makes blue collar workers feel he understands them. This is an act, a schtick, that makes him seem more genuine; it makes people feel good that he is bringing them in on the joke.

Trump’s campaign . . . was successful because it was, in a word, entertaining — not just for the white rural underclass, not just for conservatives, but also for the public at large, even those who strongly opposed his candidacy. Whether understood as pleasing or offensive, Trump’s show was compelling. The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle, Hall et al, Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2016

Trump is not a competent government leader. Similarly to Boris Johnson, he wanted the lead role, but not the parts that come with governing. Other presidents have developed strong communications approaches whilst in post such as Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Trump and Johnson have campaign-only styles.  There is a well-known phrase: “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose”. But standard managerialism is ignored and dismissed by both.

By denouncing the old media, which he used and then rubbished, claiming all they say as fake news if it does not please him, Trump has undermined the institutional safeguards of the Republican party. His grasp of celebrity and his entertainment skills have brought him a dangerous power, culminating in his threat to the US constitution after losing the 2020 presidential election. His election in 2016 was helped by economic circumstances, but powered by his ability to entertain, and dominate the airwaves.

John reflected on his time living and working in the US 2005 to 2012. He thinks that US opinion is disparate and often unpredictable. This means that predicting what will happen in the 2024 election remains difficult. Biden is old, but not senile, and remains a successful campaigner. Trump is still out for revenge and now has a better idea of how to use the presidential role to achieve his goals.

John took questions from the audience to explore some of the points he made in his talk.

Readers can access John’s articles here: https://www.ft.com/john-gapper