The secret to Trump’s success, the insight that has separated him from his competitors, is that he has cared less about the nature of the coverage he received than that he received coverage at all.One reason this worked so well for Trump in the election is that many Americans are bored by politics. The issues that dominated serious political news in 2016 – Iraq, Afghanistan, China, health care, illegal immigration, taxes, etc. – were pretty much the same issues that dominated the news in 2004. No recent political figure in America has had much new and interesting to say, or many new ideas about how to govern. Trump at least sounded different from all the other politicians, and I think that was hugely helpful to him.
“Even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business,” Trump said in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. He goes on to recall the lesson he learned being attacked for a particularly gaudy skyscraper he sought to build. “The point,” he says, “is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.”
This is the law by which Trump lives his life. Attention creates value, at least for him. Before Trump, every politician hewed to the same basic rule: You want as much positive coverage, and as little negative coverage, as possible. Trump upended that.
His rule, his realization, is that you want as much coverage as possible, full stop. If it’s positive coverage, great. If it’s negative coverage, so be it. The point is that it’s coverage — that you’re the story, that you’re squeezing out your competitors, that you’re on people’s minds.
This was Trump’s true political innovation: He realized that presidential campaigns — and particularly presidential primaries — had become reality shows, and the path to victory was to get the most attention, even if much of that attention was negative.
Another thing that helped Trump was that all American media outlets are in a desperate war for attention. Because they crave attention so badly they can't bring themselves to ignore any story that might get a lot of clicks, even if they know featuring that story will only help demagogues or reward mass murderers or whatever other moral reason you can think of.
So here is the lesson of Trump's rise: to win elections, make yourself the story.
Perhaps this is a part of our pop culture, a very vocal and visual part. A place where one is a celebrity for being known as a celebrity rather than for being known for what they have done; a place where shame is a quaint artifact of a time gone by; a place where lies are more entertaining than truth; and a place where infamy equals fame. That's what Trump is, he's a celebrity, and he stays a celebrity by always being outrageous.
It could be argued that the various Fascist leaders of the early / mid 20th century succeeded in much the same way. Figures like Hitler and Mussolini weren't known for any meaningful personal accomplishments - they simply rose to power by appealing to disaffected support bases, and relied upon outrageous rhetoric and blatant lies at every turn to shape public opinion toward their desired ends.
People didn't flock to their banners because they were proven to be capable leaders - they rallied behind them largely just because they were willing to raise hell and condemn the extant establishment.
Economic hardship, racial tensions, and uncertainty about the future - then as now - drive certain kinds of people to radicalize almost purely around the notion of upsetting the status quo. Drastic change, no matter what kind or how abominable, ends up being seen as preferable to attempting slow and uncertain reforms of a system that isn't adapting quickly enough to meet the circumstances of reality.
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