Just as the emergence of Barack Obama did not happen overnight, the phenomenon of Donald Trump was a long time coming. It goes back decades and has to do with a seismic political, cultural, technological and demographic shifts that have occurred over time.
Here are ten big developments that helped to get us where we are today:
1) FDR. What did he have to do with all this? Well, FDR was the first celebrity president of the modern age. He palled around with entertainers and movie stars and mastered the use of the new technological medium of radio to communicate. He was a true pop culture hero.
2) Ike. Not unlike Trump, Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t know whether he was a Republican or a Democrat before he decided to seek the presidency. In fact, he was courted by both parties. He could have turned either way. In the end (again, not unlike Trump) he made a pragmatic decision to run as a Republican. Of course, it helped that he was a national hero. He was also the first presidential candidate who turned to Madison Avenue to manage the marketing of his campaign and he was the first to use television advertising.
3) JFK. John F. Kennedy, the second celebrity president of the modern age, mastered the use of television. He also became a pop-culture phenomenon. Kennedy’s multi-millionaire father (who once controlled a movie studio) hired Hollywood’s top talents to market his son’s name and image, stressing his movie star looks. Kennedy also demonstrated that with a deep well of money you didn’t need to rely on other sources for funding.
4) Richard Nixon. During his second run for the White House in 1968 Nixon was sold to the public like a bar of soap. He used slick advertising techniques to convince the public that he had a plan to extract us from a costly and protracted foreign war and put America back on its feet. But he never really detailed the plan. Turns out he didn’t have to. Sound familiar?
5) Watergate. The massive Watergate scandal seriously damaged the presidency and eroded the public’s faith in government and other institutions. As faith was eroded, the media gained greater and greater influence and became an even larger factor in the political scheme of things.
6) Jimmy Carter. This man proved that just about anybody could become president. An obscure Georgia peanut farmer emerged to preside over the most powerful office in the land and turned out to be a micro-managing failure. This is where “incompetence” became a major issue. Interestingly enough, you hear Trump use that term quite frequently today.
7) Reagan. The Great Communicator (who started as a radio broadcaster, became a movie and TV star and then set out on the hustling as a folksy corporate spokesperson) fused all media and mastered his message with relentless discipline while making it all seem natural. He became a brand — a brand that endures even into the 21st century.
8) The internet and social media. As print died and broadcasting was replaced by narrowcasting and personal media, power flowed out of the hands of big entities and into the hands of ordinary people. This allowed groups, subgroups and emerging movements to begin to supplant political parties. This is just the sort of atmosphere that serves as a perfect hothouse for causes such as Trumpism.
9) Obama. Obama showed how to use social media to win. His was the first cyber campaign. And, using cyber technology. Obama built his own infrastructure; his own organization; his own silicon engine; his own party. Call it Obamanism.
10) The Washington Republican leadership and other entrenched Republicans. They said that if we gave them control of the Congress they’d reverse the dastardly deeds of Obama. We not only gave them the Congress but we also handed them the majority of the state legislatures and nearly three out of four governerships. And they did virtually nothing. Nothing! For huge masses of people this was truly the last straw.
And one more thing: It’s important to note that Bill Clinton played a role in all this as well. Never a great orator, he was a master conversationalist and storyteller. And he loved the spotlight. He brought a cavalier attitude to the presidency (that’s putting it kindly) and cheapened the oval office. The Clinton era was marked by tawdriness and greatly contributed to the coarsening of the culture.
All of this set the stage for the new populism — a massive counterforce that has taken on a life of its own.
Celebritizing the presidency. Using Mad Men techniques to sway voters. Mastering modern communication tools. Dumbing down the office and the message. Buying into the pop culture, including its penchant for vulgarity and coarseness. It’s all there.
Donald Trump watched this. He studied it. And you better believe he planned his moment.
And now he has stepped into the breach.