For a moment, I want to step back from all the serious news about former President Trump, his legal challenges, and his 2024 presidential campaign. I’d like instead to look at his remarkable success as an influencer. There are lots of definitions of influencer out there. Since I’m not interested in the influencers who are fashion trendsetters, I’ve chosen the definition posted by the Digital Marketing Institute “A social media influencer is someone who has established credibility in a specific industry, has access to a huge audience and can persuade others to act based on their recommendations.”
How did he achieve this status? It was a long process. In the 1980s he was a real estate developer, branching out into hotels, casinos, and golf courses. He stepped up his image in 1996 with the purchase of the Miss Universe Organization. This helped him establish his image as a fabulously wealthy man even while his business ventures were going through ups and downs. When he was hired in 2004 to star in The Apprentice, the reality TV franchise solidified his image as a business mogul and also paid him $427 million dollars. Both the Miss Universe Organization and The Apprentice firmed up his status as an extremely well known media personality.
Here’s where it gets complicated. While building a business empire and establishing himself as a media star, Donald Trump was also adopting the shock-jock style that Rush Limbaugh built into a cultural phenomenon, including his misogynistic and racist comments, conspiracy theories, and grievances. Rush Limbaugh was a major influencer decades before social media. Millions listened to his three hour daily monologue. Though commercial media did and still do have the right to control what is said on their platforms, they rarely did until recently. It turns out even Fox Media has limits on how much misogyny and racism it will tolerate from its stars–witness the canceling of Tucker Carlson’s show last week.
Donald Trump had an early taste of this in 2015 when The Apprentice let him go over anti-Mexican Immigrant comments that he made in 2015. This happened while he was announcing his presidential campaign –but by shifting from media to politics, Mr. Trump was able to crawl into the safety of First Amendment protections and use the candidate’s platform and later the presidency to amplify his voice as an influencer.
The First Amendment provides that “Congress (shall) make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. It protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Interpretations of what this covers have changed over time but currently include protection of false speech, hate speech, and even most cases of incitement to violence. The First Amendment protects legal attacks on free speech but counts on the marketplace to exercise controls to maintain decency.
Donald Trump’s voice has been amplified in the last few years to an unparalleled level. From his position as President, his every word had significance, and his combative and abusive style drew an audience that was acculturated by talk radio. Even when Twitter suspended his access, he was able to sidestep the only societal controls against hate speech by buying Truth Social, his own media outlet. He continues to do the work that Rush Limbaugh started, stirring right-wing talk show audiences with resentment, alienation, and grievance. Even after he lost the 2020 election and candidates he supported in the mid-terms did poorly, he remains the dominant influencer in the Republican Party.
He has kept this position in spite of the wishes of many of the Party’s leadership. During the Party’s recent struggle to elect a Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich summed it up. “The Republican base,” he said, is “watching chaos in the House, and they’re watching the potential for a Never-Trump and an Always-Trump collision that could be devastatingly divisive.”
The influence of Mr. Trump is fueling anger among Republican and Democratic voters and turning real issues that our country needs to address into a deep and dangerous rift in America. Imagine if we were able to have respectful and productive debates about abortion, gun control, and what role parents have in their children’s education. Instead we are almost completely divided, and our opinions of “the other side” are charged with contempt – a product of right wing talk shows and Mr. Trump. When liberals and moderates express shock and anger about what right wing leaders say and do, and about what the extreme fringe of the right wing (Proud Boys, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others) does, we are also deepening the divide. We are all reacting to Mr. Trump’s influence, and he seems to be primarily concerned about restoring his own status, not what he is doing to our country.
We are all living in a darker, scarier, angrier, less hopeful country thanks to Mr. Trump’s influence. Are we on the verge of civil war? Are we really unable to do anything about almost daily mass shootings? If he does get convicted of serious crimes related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, will an activated right wing take to the streets with a level of violence never before seen here? Can any of us step back from the outrage he has stirred up?
It won’t be easy, but we really have to reduce Trump’s influence. We have to shine a light on the magnitude of his self-interest, which has pervaded everything he says. Perhaps we need to support the cracks in his support and the spots where Republican leaders and right-wing talk radio hosts like Joe Walsh, Michael Medved, Charlie Sykes, Craig Silverman, and Scott Eisner have spoken up against him. It's part of Trump’s influencer talent to make it look like his support is unstoppable, but I have hopes that it is withering and that we can take advantage of this.
As Mr. Trump restarts his campaign for president (again), and as he deals with the multiple attempts to convict him of serious crimes, we can count on his huge ego and need for self-promotion. We can count on him to spew derision and lies. I am hopeful that enough people are fed up with him and that we can chip away at his base and shift the national attention away from his antics so that his influence wanes. I plan to seek out the Republican voices that are not accepting his influence, and do my part to notice when he’s influenced me. This country has real issues to deal with, and he’s done a great job polarizing us.