How Trump Hacked This Election in 4 (Far Too Easy) Steps
I’m no mind-reader. But if I were to guess the top question running through many peoples’ minds when it comes to Donald Trump’s success thus far, it’d be something like, “What the hell is going on?”
Or, “Is this real life?”
Or, for the more introspective, “What have we done?”
Many Americans are confounded by the fact that we are just one day from Super Tuesday and Trump is no longer the butt of one long national joke but quite possibly the Republican nominee. Why haven’t any of Trump’s racist or sexist comments—which would have tanked any other candidate—sunk his ship? Why can’t anyone launch an attack that sticks? What was Chris Christie thinking? And why can’t we stop watching?
The answer to these questions is that Trump’s rise is no fluke. Through it all, Trump has dismantled the traditional rules that dictate how candidates are supposed to act and what they’re supposed to say. He’s adapted his campaign to a new era of communication and culture, creating something so new and disruptive that, regardless of how we feel about the man, we can only watch, slack-jawed, as the phenomenon grows and grows and grows. Trump has moved fast and broken stuff and never apologized.
In other words, Trump has hacked the election. Here’s how.
Rule 1: CNN and MSNBC are more powerful than any Super PAC.
Super Tuesday is tomorrow, but Trump has waited until the last minute to buy advertisements in these critical states, and is still spending only a fraction of what his competitors have spent. But no matter, cable news channels have given him more air time than any other candidate in the race.
Nine of the top national networks have mentioned Trump a stunning 258,831 times since June. That’s more than Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and John Kasich combined. In fact, Trump has been mentioned more times on MSNBC alone than any other Republican candidate has been mentioned on all nine networks, cumulatively.
Even Trump once said that placing ads on top of all that would be “too much Trump.”
“Trump is 100 percent a creature of the media,” says Alex Lundry, who led Jeb Bush’s data analytics efforts this cycle. “He’s responsible for very good ratings on the news networks, and they’re willing to cover him in ways they’ve never, ever considered covering any other candidate.”
Case in point: CNN’s hours-long coverage of Trump’s rally the night he protested the Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa. In this clip, CNN reporter Chris Moody nearly trips over another CNN reporter he didn’t even realize was covering the event. “You’re CNN too?” he asks. “How many of us are here?”
“Way too many,” the other reporter responds.
All of this so-called “earned media,” in PR parlance, has made it easier for the real-estate billionaire to self-fund his campaign. That, in turn, has validated Trump’s reputation for being authentic at any cost and impervious to the effects of money in politics. It is, perhaps, the only thing that Trump and the left’s unlikely rising star, Bernie Sanders, have in common.
Rule 2: If you don’t have something nice to say, SAY IT REALLY LOUDLY.
Of course, to get that much earned media, you have to, well, earn it. And to earn it, you have to say and do crazy shit. Trump has certainly delivered. From calling for a complete ban on Muslim immigration to saying he’ll talk to Bill Gates about “closing that Internet up” to calling Ted Cruz a “pussy” to comparing Ben Carson to a child molester to implying Mexican immigrants are rapists to claiming he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters to…
Oh god, what have we done?
As outrageous as these comments have been, they’ve made Trump impenetrable to criticism. There’s almost nothing his opponents can catch him on that he hasn’t said loudly and proudly in public. “The worst thing that can happen to you in politics is that your facade cracks, and you’re exposed as being something you’re not,” says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist and co-founder of Echelon Insights. “With Trump, the crazy wasn’t a facade.”
This is why, as pundits have noted, Trump’s fellow candidates have battled among themselves for months, taking each other out even as they fail to take Trump on. It seems they realized that none of the standard barbs would stick on a guy who so unabashedly speaks the unspeakable.
“He’s not trying to hide any of it,” Ruffini says. “So it doesn’t hurt him in the same way.”
Rule 3: There’s no need to talk policy when you’ve only got 140 characters.
Trump may be a “creature of the media,” as Lundry says. But he’s also a creature of social media, specifically, Twitter. As we’ve said before, Twitter isn’t a platform that requires or rewards nuance or research. All it requires are unrepentant opinions, candor, and a willingness to have a two-way conversation with followers.
All of this makes Twitter the perfect platform for a candidate like Trump, who’s never been known for his policy chops. On Twitter, he never has to explain how, exactly, he plans to build a wall or how he plans to “win” with China. Details don’t play as well on Twitter, as Trump knows better than anyone.
Instead, all he has to do is plug his own poll numbers, retweet his followers (even if they’re white supremacists), and pick fights with fellow candidates and the media. The attention pours in. Pretty much the only plan he ever mentions on Twitter is his plan to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, which, as it happens, fits fairly well in 140 characters or less.
But what makes Twitter the best audience for Trump is the fact that Twitter is a place where people with radical ideas, like the ones Trump proposes, can find one another. “I think it has empowered a community on Twitter that is, in some cases, very ugly in its nature,” says Ruffini. “It’s empowered people who hold racist or quasi-racist views to attach themselves to the Trump bandwagon.”
As we’ve noted before, social media can often reinforce extremist ideas, because people who hold those ideas feel they’re part of a much larger crowd. As those ideas become validated online, so do the candidates who espouse them.
Rule 4: Embrace your race…and your riches.
After the 2012 election, the Republican party performed something of a postmortem to determine how the party could prevent yet another loss this time around. The party called it the Growth and Opportunity Project, and one of its key findings was that the GOP as a whole had to be more inclusive of African-Americans, Latinos, and women. The final report outlined step-by-step recommendations on how to do that.
Trump has ignored almost every one. He’s perpetuated the “war on women” stereotype the report warned against and battled the Latino media that the party hoped to reach out to. He hasn’t tried addressing people in Spanish (he has enough trouble with English). He hasn’t done interviews in black barber shops. He hasn’t pandered much at all, except to some Americans’ fears that increasing diversity means decreasing prosperity.
“Trump is saying: Am I going to promise African Americans something special? No. Am I going to promise Hispanics I’m going to do something special? No. I’m going to bring jobs back. I’m going to fix the economy. I’m going to create so much prosperity and win so much people are going to get sick of winning,” says Garrett Johnson, a former Bush advisor and co-founder of the conservative advocacy group Lincoln Labs.
In this way, Trump is breaking a cardinal rule of campaigning, not trying to expand the base, but digging deeper into it. “What Trump is exploiting is this notion of lesser educated, non-college educated white voters, who turn out at rates below the national average,” Ruffini says.
Another pandering 101 rule he’s breaking: talking about his wealth. For most candidates, campaigning is about leveling with the people. It’s why Hillary Clinton often tells the story of how she got fired from her summer job sliming fish in Alaska, and why Ted Cruz won’t stop talking about how his father came to the US with $100 sewn in his underwear.
Trump, by contrast, proudly admits his father gave him a “small loan” of $1 million which he turned into (depending on when you ask) $10 billion. “The guy has a 757 plane he flies on, and every building he’s ever owned has his name emblazoned on it,” Johnson says. “He has no interest in hiding his success.”
Like all great hackers, he is unapologetically braggadocious about his accomplishments, making him an aspirational if never quite relatable figure among his followers. Now, the bombastic billionaire is angling for the biggest target of all: The White House. Only by understanding how Trump managed to penetrate the system do his opponents stand a chance of keeping him out.