By Alex Altman
Donald Trump’s meteoric rise to Republican nominee is as unlikely as it is unprecedented. Five years ago, he was on Comedy Central getting roasted by Snoop Dogg and “The Situation.” Now, he’s on the verge of becoming the first major party nominee who hasn’t held previous office since Dwight Eisenhower.
How can a man with no political experience, who’s been embroiled in so much controversy that it warranted a primetime TV special, be in a position to lead the free world?
– The purpose of this blog is not to debate Trump’s political views, character or worthiness of being handed the keys to America’s highest office — but rather to break down the PR mastery that enabled his ascension from reality TV star to potential commander in chief. –
When Trump’s presidential prospects went from bad joke to eerie reality, it sent every pollster in America scrambling for answers. Everyone knew his momentum was being fueled by anger, notably people who were still reeling from the Great Recession and felt incensed by the direction of the country. But further research revealed another common thread among Trump supporters.
Trump’s campaign was being buoyed by Americans with Authoritarian inclinations; people whose values aligned with the leaders of reclusive countries for whom Trump has not-so-coincidentally expressed admiration. Trump positioned himself as the candidate that would restore order to their world, no matter how cruel or insensitive it made him appear.
“Authoritarians obey,” wrote Matthew MacWilliams, a political scientist. “They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened. From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”
Trump positioned himself as the ultimate outsider, his lack of reliance on super-PACs giving credence to this narrative. But Trump never needed mega donors. By March 15, the day Marco Rubio exited the campaign, Trump had already scored an estimated $2 billion in free media coverage, generating more buzz than not only Republican rivals but even stars like Taylor Swift. Turns out, dropping an incessant stream of bombs from the sky keeps you in the news cycle.
While most Americans found his campaign tactics to be abhorrent, this too worked in his favor as it crystalized his image as a saboteur of political correctness. Somewhere between calling Mexicans “rapists” and refusing to immediately condemn the KKK, he become a hero for a swath of the country whose views had never been so prominently represented in the political process.
His backing was evident at campaign events across the country, when supporters would gleefully answer his calls to treat protestors with violence. Footage of brutal incidents at various rallies underscored the “us versus them” mentality he promoted. And all the while, Trump continued to do what Trump does best: pound the podium and make brazen proclamations about everything that imperiled America.
While Trump’s antics make him appear unhinged, don’t be mistaken. Everything about his image, from his eccentric hair to his explosive rhetoric, was precisely calculated to drive media attention and consolidate support in a cluttered GOP field.
Only time will tell if Trump becomes president. But that he’s even made it this far is a testament to PR chops that even his most vehement haters have to respect.