With each passing week, more and more experts are perplexed by two things about Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign: the sheer, undiminished outrageousness of his words and actions, and the significant number of Americans who continue to support Mr. Trump despite his appalling behavior.
The word “unprecedented” has been used repeatedly to describe Mr. Trump’s campaign: from numerous exaggerated assertions lacking factual basis over a lengthy period of time, incendiary tweets insulting large swathes of the American population and even senior members of his own party, the name-calling of his detractors and opponents, and the vague, hyperbolic promises of performance without discernible substance.
All of this seems totally unpresidential and a recipe for disaster. How is it that Mr. Trump’s supporters still remain firmly behind him?
In this blog post, I want to propose that Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign is indeed unprecedented in that a significant number of Americans support Mr. Trump because of his outrageous words and actions, not despite them. My thesis is that Mr. Trump has rejected the traditional presidential candidate behavioral script. Instead, he has adopted the behavioral script of a reality TV show star (consistent with his role in “The Apprentice”) to conduct his presidential campaign from its very beginning and has stuck to it.
He is continuing to garner support because in today’s culture, a reality TV show behavioral script evokes authenticity and trust to a greater degree, and is more popular among a vast segment of American voters, than a traditional presidential candidate script.
Psychologists define a behavioral script as “stereotyped event sequences.” It’s the idea that in many life situations especially the ones that we encounter regularly, people develop a schematic concept about how the event is supposed to unfold, how they and others within it are supposed to behave, and what they should expect. According to psychologist Craig Anderson, a behavioral script guides the person’s understanding of the situation and their behavior within it as it occurs.
For many of us, a presidential election behavioral script involves a sequence of events that begins with different politicians announcing their interest in running, followed by the primaries over many months, then the party conventions and selection of the nominees, the nation-wide campaigning by the nominees, the debates, and then the general election. We expect the major-party nominees to be career politicians, behave in dignified ways, be knowledgeable about issues, answer questions thoughtfully, disagree with their opponents respectfully, and so on.
Mr. Trump has rejected the behavioral script of a political presidential candidate. He has replaced it with the script of a reality television show performer, which itself is consistent with his previous public persona.
Consumer psychologists Randall Rose and Stacy Wood identified three characteristics of reality TV show behavioral scripts that apply perfectly to Mr. Trump. According to the authors, each characteristic is paradoxical, having dual, opposing characteristics. Yet each one engages the viewer, and creates a sense that the show is authentic and worthwhile. It hooks the viewer into watching regularly.
Successful, long-running reality shows like the Bachelorette, Survivor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, etc. all have one thing in common. Their main characters are larger than life, an attractive model, a professional sportsperson, or a mega-celebrity. But they behave in ways are relatable for viewers. The larger than life aspects of reality TV performers generate admiration, respect, aspiration, even awe. And yet because viewers can easily identify with, and imagine being like them, it is easy to be engaged, even if it is only through television and social media.
Mr. Trump has satisfied these opposing criteria consistently over the years, and carried them into his presidential campaign. On the one hand, he conveys the persona of a business tycoon, one of the richest Americans, and worlds apart from his supporters. Yet when he mocks a particular group, or insults his opponent in a crass way, he echoes his supporters’ hidden beliefs and their mannerisms perfectly, producing a strong personal connection, and a need to defend and support him regardless of his other transgressions. When he doubles down on outrageous behavior and refuses to apologize, it has the effect of bolstering his larger than life persona.
People enjoy a reality show when it reinforces and validates their own important life goals and experiences. For example, in the Rose and Wood study, one participant liked watching the reality show Boot Camp because she wanted a military career. Others didn’t like the show Temptation Island because the actors’ goals and behaviors seemed totally inconsistent with their own personal values or codes of conduct. The authors concluded:
“This paradoxical combination of desired fantasy and self-referenced goals is intriguing in both the viewer’s apparent ease in negotiation and the influence successful negotiation has on the viewer’s attraction to the program.”
Mr. Trump has been masterful in utilizing the paradox of situation to lock in his follower base. Just like a reality TV show, he chose a combination of meaningful goals as campaign promises. Some promises are politically appropriate for a Republican nominee like lowering taxes, repealing Obamacare, and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices. But others are particularly outrageous and politically incorrect, like banning Muslims entirely from entering the country, and building a wall along the Southern border. Even if he wins, he has little chance of fulfilling these promises; but they increase his attraction to supporters because they reflect the views these supporters harbor precisely.
Rose and Wood argue that reality TV show viewers are savvy enough to understand that what is presented as spontaneous and unscripted to them every week is really the result of numerous carefully thought-out decisions by its producers, from casting the right people, and introducing the appropriate amount of controversy and conflict, to editing the footage so that what is shown and how it is shown produces a compelling narrative. As they say, it is the “juxtaposition of contrivance and spontaneity that strongly influence viewer attraction.”
This is also true of Mr. Trump’s supporters. They understand that Mr. Trump is constructing a particular narrative, that of a savvy, successful, alpha male businessman who is out to dismantle Washington piece by piece, and change how the country is governed. So they go along with him through thick and thin. I will just use one example to illustrate this point: his income taxes. Mr. Trump has not only failed to release his income tax returns, a highly unusual decision in itself. But he openly admitted to taking advantage of every available loophole and paying as little income tax as possible. In a presidential candidate following the traditional political script, such behavior would be seen as suspicious, dishonest, and unpatriotic, especially when 79% of his supporters view paying taxes as their “civic duty.” But through the lens of a reality TV show script, it is perfectly acceptable. It seems spontaneous but is understood as manufactured to be outrageous. It reinforces him as a “genius” and a hard-nosed businessman.
So where does this leave us? Regardless of this election’s outcome, we should not discount Mr. Trump’s unwavering support and the mechanisms that produced it as an exceptional, never-to-be-repeated phenomenon. Instead, Mr. Trump’s success in keeping his supporters’ unwavering support presages a future where more and more of our public governance processes, whether they are presidential elections, Supreme Court justice nominations, or congressional hearings, will be annexed by the reality TV show script, where substance is overshadowed by showmanship and hyperbole, where controversy is courted, and understated decency and normalcy is rejected. The cult of the abnormal and spectacular looms on our horizons.