If you still aren’t sure how and why Donald Trump is succeeding, you have to pay really close attention. I didn’t fully understand it until recently.
Mid-evening Aug. 21, Fox News cut away to a news alert. The patented Fox News alert noise sounded, “The O’Reilly Factor” promptly ended and cameras shot to the all-too-important, breaking story.
Trump was speaking. Everyone needed to sit down and be quiet.
Trump packed Lad-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama that night more than the South Alabama Jaguars, the stadium’s tenant, probably ever will. Roughly 30,000 crowded inside the stadium to hear Trump say such thought-provoking things such as he doesn’t like the ties at Macy’s, or that he is no longer going to eat Oreos.
Fast forward to this Tuesday, around 7 p.m., CNN and MSNBC aired Trump give almost the exact same speech in Iowa. He mentioned Oreos again, shattering the previous record of campaign Oreo mentions, 0, talked about how former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is clueless and mentioned his poll numbers repeatedly. He loves his poll numbers.
And why not? Trump is leading the 17-person GOP field by double digits, and probably by triple digits somehow over former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore. He’s also leading the field in speaking time, landing prime-time interviews other candidates aren’t afforded such as two full-hour interviews with Sean Hannity – who at this point seems to be vying to be Trump’s press secretary should the business mogul be president.
Hannity and rabble-rouser Ann Coulter lead the pack in big names to sell out for Trump, and it makes zero sense.
Granted, Coulter has never been about small government, but overall, it still doesn’t make sense – why would GOP votes embrace a big-government, constitutionally-indifferent pandering buffoon?
Then, Aug. 27, it all clicked for me. Trump invited a woman to come on stage with him to prove his hair was real. Trump, a reality TV star, was stealing the show with this monkey business. And that’s because – thanks to a mix of cable news and boiled-over frustrations – the 2016 election had become a reality TV show.
You could not script a TV show any better than the way the 2016 race is unfolding. You have your villains – Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie – and cranky old man character Bernie Sanders. You have your young hotshots like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and even Scott Walker. But Trump, as illiterate as he is on policy, is the only one who knows reality TV. He is the only one who knows the script perfectly.
The entire debate process and its rules to keep certain candidates out is reality TV. Debates used to be events that citizens would attend to hear candidates talk about pressing issues. It’s how the Lincoln-Douglas debates became popular. Contrary to what one might think, those weren’t moderated by Brett Baier at Quicken Loans Arena.
Today “debates” offer candidates between five and 10 minutes of speaking time in 30-second intervals. They aren’t about policy, but who can have the best soundbite. That is a fight Trump wins. He offers empty talk on policy, but is chock-full of soundbites and will surely have more at the Sept. 16 CNN debate.
Trump has perfectly manipulated the cable news media and frustrating current conditions, making his rise remarkable, stunning, and also really destructive.
In the seven years since Sen. John McCain lost to now-president Barack Obama, the small government movement has grown exponentially. Republicans riding the Tea Party wave picked up 63 seats in the House of Representatives in 2010, and despite losing the White House with a flawed candidate in 2012, retook the Senate in 2014.
Ron Paul received more than 2 million votes in the 2012 Republican primaries, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary challenge to a college professor no one outside his classroom had heard of, and conservatives have made it known they are coming after John Boehner next.
Now, with its up-and-coming stars finally ready to run for president against an incredibly weak and thin Democratic field – a field led by a candidate under FBI investigation and another who is self-described socialist – whom does the GOP turn to? A pro-single payer, pro-tax hike, self-identifying Democrat and Hillary Clinton-donating reality TV star. Yeah, that makes sense.
The worst thing about Trump is not that he is void of ideas, is xenophobic, misogynistic, lacking the temperament to be president, or being so awful that I have to write a sentence this long listing his horrible qualities. It’s that he has completely stunted the momentum of the small government movement and prevented a real debate of ideas by running a soundbite-filled, TV-ratings driven campaign. And that’s actually a predicable outcome of a combination of cable news outlets hungry for those soundbites and a voter base hungry for something outside the political establishment that fails and lies to them every couple years.
Trump has been able to co-opt the Tea Party and self-identifying conservatives by tapping into both their frustration with Washington and their love of anti-establishment candidates. But considering that it’s clear neither are true – Trump has admitted to using the political class to his advantage – it’s high-time conservatives looked past the summer of Trump and all the hysteria that came with it and cancel the reality TV show. Conservatives, libertarians and tea partiers didn’t work this hard to advance the pro-freedom, small-government agenda the last seven years just to be fed favorable soundbites from a big-government loudmouth.
It will be hard for conservatives because he is so effective at tapping into anger. Blame illegal immigrants for everything? Trump will say some brash words about it. Sick of political correctness? Trump will say something vulgar. Don’t trust the media? Trump will literally kick Jorge Ramos out of a press conference and call one of the most famous female news anchors in the country a “bimbo.” But swear to defend the constitution and have real policy answers? No, not this guy.
Trump’s biography comes out Oct. 6, and if we’re being skeptical of his intentions – and I am, because no serious person is campaigning that hard on Oreos or his hair – you could see him plan to slowly cancel his show starting Oct. 7, a la Herman Cain style. But if that isn’t the case, it’s time for conservatives to pull the plug or change the channel before it completely destroys the TV. If those in the small-government movement don’t cancel Trump, the ideas they’ve worked toward will be canceled in their support of him.
Meanwhile, there are 16 other channels that aren’t getting watched enough. There might be some good ideas in one of a few of them.