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The Rise of Trump: How Trump Went From a Reality Star to a Presidential Candidate

By Annmarie Mullen | 10/31/16 1:24pm | Updated 11/1/16 11:41am
Maia Lev / American Word Magazine

On Tuesday, October 25, Professor Leonard Steinhorn gave a special SOC Faculty Forum on the rise of Donald Trump. Steinhorn is a professor of public communication and an affiliate professor of history, specializing in American politics, culture and media, strategic communication, the presidency, race relations, the 1960s, and recent American history. This blend of specialties and expertise gives him a unique perspective on this year’s presidential election.

Professor Steinhorn began the forum by pointing out that only thirty days ago, prior to the release of the Access Hollywood tapes, Donald Trump had a 50 percent chance of winning the presidency. How a man like Trump came so close to the White House, according to Professor Steinhorn, “Says a lot about who we are as a country, as a culture, as a society, and where we have come from.” Steinhorn listed four factors to explain the rise of Donald Trump: the media, the anti-authority strain in American culture, the politics of grievance, and the siloing of America.

The media has a strong influence on politics, putting Donald Trump, a media darling, at an advantage. According to Professor Steinhorn, he “in many ways is a celebrity; his whole brand has been about himself.” Steinhorn compared Trump to Kim Kardashian, another celebrity who has become very famous and successful because of her brand. Trump understands the fascination media has with the rich and the powerful so he sought, as Professor Steinhorn explained, to create a “brand of wealth, of sexiness, of Playboy style straight out of the 1950s” as a businessman. The media carried their love affair with Trump into the presidential campaign; Steinhorn cited a particularly egregious example where CNN ignored a Clinton speech on labor rights in favor of following Trump’s plane to the tarmac in anticipation of a press conference on one of his many scandals.

The next factor, the anti-authoritarian strain of American culture, dates back to the Revolution. Steinhorn labeled the historic American effort as “a revolution against entrenched power and authority.” Americans have maintained a suspicion of those in authority—from the trust busters of the 1900s to the fighters of totalitarianism in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, Steinhorn says, the divide is “between those who have cultural capital right now and those who don’t.” The urban, educated, cosmopolitan class of people is seen as having power over the rural, less educated class. Members of this class, often white, working-class, and male, who, according to Steinhorn, believe that “one way to regain it [power] is through the candidacy of Donald Trump,” because Trump promises to restore the white working class to their supposedly rightful place at the center of American politics.

The third factor is the so-called politics of grievance, stemming from the 1960s. Steinhorn pointed to reporter Theodore White who, in his 1964 book Backlash, predicted that white backlash against civil rights and racial integration would reverberate through American politics. As the old Democratic party evolved from the white working class party to the party of civil rights, the Republicans, particularly Richard Nixon, seized on this white backlash with the theme of the “Silent Majority.” Professor Steinhorn explained that Nixon “used race, status, and culture to divide the American polity.” He positioned the Republican Party as being the champion of the white working class, a party that wouldn’t encourage dependence on government programs or cater to minority desires. Steinhorn conceded that such a strategy was political genius at the time, but that it had devastating effects on our culture. This strong feeling of victimization amongst whites, especially white men, has contributed to Trump’s rise.

The final factor in Trump’s ascendency is the ‘siloing’ of America. By this, Professor Steinhorn means that America is segregated by political affiliation. Democrats tend to live around other Democrats, befriend other Democrats, marry other Democrats, and listen to Democrat-leaning media; the same goes for Republicans. This segregation constantly affirms people’s biases, meaning they are less likely to seek out or try to understand people with other political beliefs. This siloing has even infected the American Dream. Steinhorn pointed to statistics stating that a majority of Republicans believe poor people are poor because of individual moral failings, while the majority of Democrats cite societal problems. Steinhorn lamented this “sort of divide on something so fundamental to who we are really does show how completely isolated the two parts of America are from one another.” To fix this major problem, Steinhorn said he would advise Hillary Clinton, should she win the presidency, to “find her inner Robert Kennedy,” as Kennedy is the only politician who bridged the gap between the two bases.

The successes of Trump are shocking to both average citizens and pundits alike. However, when broken down, Steinhorn shows exactly how this success is possible. Knowing the factors, it begs the question: could this happen again in the future?