Trump Gets More Extreme Because His Audience Is Addicted to Outrage

His fans love to see norms broken, but they demand new and increasingly outrageous material in order to be satisfied.

I remember when the FOX broadcast network was new and only had two hours of primetime television. They made a name for themselves by winning the right to broadcast NFL football games, which forced millions to find their number on the dial. People fell in love with The Simpsons, but they also discovered a new kind of lowest common denominator programming. The success of Married…With Children was heavily bolstered by the publicity it received from a boycott against its crude and tasteless content. Soon, all previous standards of what was appropriate for broadcast television devolved as program directors fought an arms race to provide the most outrageous material.

Cheap laughs were no longer the goal of sitcom television, but rather titillation and outrage were subject to the same rules as drugs and alcohol. You need more and more to get the same effect. Before long, though, viewers could get a better high off cable programming where there were no restrictions on foul language. That’s when reality television entered the picture and quickly replaced the sitcom as the most popular genre of primetime network programming.

This is basically how I view not only Trump’s presidency but also his behavior. His supporters are addicted to the thrill they get when he breaks the rules of decorum. But Trump can’t stick with the same old material and deliver the same effect. He constantly has to up the ante. That’s how “Mexico will pay for the wall” becomes “lock her up” becomes “the concept of chokehold sounds so innocent, so perfect.”

Trump’s latest material involves running for a third or even a fourth term, despite the constitutional restriction that limits modern presidents to two four-year terms in office.

President Trump said Saturday that he plans to “negotiate” to run again in 2024 if he wins reelection in November, his latest in a series of comments that have alarmed critics who say he has little regard for constitutional boundaries…

…During a rally in Minden, Nevada, Trump predicted he would win reelection and carry Nevada, a state he lost narrowly in 2016.

“After that,” Trump said, “we’ll negotiate,” asserting that he’s “probably entitled to another four after that” based on “the way we were treated.”

The comments echo ones Trump made during a rally in Wisconsin in August, in which he stated he would win four more years and “go for another four years” because “they spied on my campaign,” likely referencing his unproven “Obamagate” theory.

Trump is probably expressing a genuine belief that he’s entitled hold office without limit, like his pal Vladimir Putin. But as performative art, he knows it works in the same way that Al Bundy dressing in drag and reading pornographic magazines worked for the ratings of Married…With Children. People love it because it upsets the prigs.

Yet, no one ever mistook situational comedies for real life, and ultimately the true merit of breaking Victorian restrictions on television was discovered to be the increased realism it could bring to hour-long dramas and crime shows. Reality television was a nod to this development. The audience was no longer satisfied with transparently artificial worlds like the Cheers barroom or Frasier’s apartment. They wanted the lines blurred so that the outrage and titillation seemed as if it could be happening in real life.

Trump understood the genre and he excelled at providing that kind of content with his Apprentice shows. He uses the same approach in politics. It doesn’t matter that there’s no chance that Mexico will pay for a border wall or that he’ll put Hillary Clinton in jail or that he’ll succeed in changing the constitution so he can remain in office beyond eight years. The debate over these things is happening in real life, and that gives them just enough reality to satisfy the fans.

But Trump’s presidency isn’t a diversionary piece of entertainment. It has actual consequences, including 200,000 victims of COVID-19, many of whom didn’t believe the threat was real because the president told them it wasn’t real.

Looking back, this shouldn’t surprise us. The Apprentice convinced millions that Trump was a savvy and successful businessman, rather than a guy who took a giant inheritance and ran one venture after another into legal problems and bankruptcy. Why wouldn’t the people who were duped by the reality television show be duped by the phony presidency?  And why wouldn’t fans of the first show remain fans of the second?

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com