It is a strikingly appropriate that FX is running its surprisingly gripping true-crime series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
How are they related? Let me count the ways.
Trials, like political campaigns, are contests between dueling narratives. The side with the best story wins, says the Johnnie Cochran character in the FX show. (Cochran was the defense attorney who masterminded Simpson’s acquittal.) His teammate, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, expands on that axiom:
“Look at what the culture is becoming,” he tells his students as they watch the trial on live television. “The media, people — they want narrative too. But they want it to be entertainment. And what’s out in the world osmoses back into the courtroom, sequester be damned. If there’s gonna be a media circus, you better well be the ringmaster.”
Twenty-one years after the Simpson trial, the era of so-called “reality TV” that it launched with its slow-speed white Ford Bronco chase, bloody gloves and Kardashians (the series reminds us of how Simpson hid out in the bedroom of Kim Kardashian, daughter of his since-deceased pal Robert Kardashian) has led us to Trump’s surprisingly successful presidential campaign, an example of how far you can get if you’re rich, famous and stubbornly resistant to any sense of embarrassment.
Trump has made himself a ringmaster of the 2016 Republican presidential political circus, although he might well prefer comparisons to professional wrestling, an industry for which he has shown personal fondness over the years.
He starred in Wrestlemania’s Battle of the Billionaires in 2007 and hosted Wrestlemania events in his Atlantic City property.
Now, as he seeks the nation’s highest political office, his gifts for grabbing attention have paid off by distracting us from his startling lack of experience or knowledge about the job he seeks.
Trump’s latest victim, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, sounded like he didn’t know what hit him as he explained why he had suspended his own campaign for the Republican nomination. He found a familiar suspect to blame: the media.
“When the media is constantly telling you ‘So-and-so is winning and so-and-so is losing,’” he told supporters in Minnesota, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, “it impacts voters.”
No kidding. It is not enough to be a star in today’s media-driven political circus. You must strive to be the ringmaster. That’s the lesson presented by The Donald, who has demonstrated how much mileage can be derived from sheer, unadulterated chutzpah.
Step One: Say something outrageous that breaks conventional rules almost every day. While people still are reacting to your last outrage, give them another.
That’s what we hear from Trump – from his June announcement speech, in which he described undocumented immigrants as killers and rapists, to his recent warning of “riots” if establishment Republicans try to block his nomination at the Grand Old Party’s national convention.
Step Two: Encourage your social network friends and followers to retweet messages and build communities of supporters, impenetrable by any information that disagrees with the often-inaccurate pronouncements of Trump.
Step Three: Every time you need to get attention (in the final days before a state’s primaries or caucuses, for example), raise your visibility, respond to an attack or simply change the subject, say something else outrageous and let the cycle start again.
The ironic fruits of Trump’s labors are the close to $2 billion worth of free media exposure he received this past year, according to The New York Times (using data provided by the tracking firm mediaQuant). Meanwhile, he has spent only $10 million on paid advertisements – one of the smallest spending budgets of this year’s major campaigns.
Journalists greet this new media world with mixed emotions. A media system with fewer corporate gatekeepers is exciting. It allows unconventional ideas to get out and foster robust debate. But it also allows the powerful who are sufficiently media-savvy to bypass fact-checkers or ideas with which they don’t agree.
We see that in regimes around the world today — from Russia to the Islamic State — and in today’s presidential race. Trump has found an eager audience, particularly in displaced working-class Americans looking for a strong-sounding alternatives to both parties’ conventional leaders. His supporters deserve to be heard. From Trump, we’ve already heard enough.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.