Republican Nominee Donald Trump’s presidential bid — the biggest political story of the year — has commanded an unprecedented control of the media cycle. By the end of February 2016, Trump had amassed nearly $2 billion in earned media coverage, which includes social media mentions and any appearances on TV, newspapers and radio. This coverage has been a direct boon for Trump’s campaign and was particularly beneficial during the primaries. His message proliferated quickly and thoroughly, allowing him to distinguish himself among the Republican field and reach straight through to the frustrated GOP base. However, the all-Trump media cycle has created a butterfly effect on the rest of the race, with each candidate and each issue getting their coverage re-contextualized or altogether crowded out as time goes on. Even the Democratic primary was not spared from the influence of Trump, particularly in regard to the fate of fellow populist Bernie Sanders.
Trump’s greatest dominance over the media began shortly after he announced his presidency. He began climbing the polls just a month after his now infamous announcement speech in June 2015 and saw a 20 point increase through July. In July, according to a New York Times report, he had eclipsed the sum of all media coverage for other candidates — both GOP and Democrat — at $200 million worth of coverage. In the next six months, Trump’s media exposure skyrocketed, reaching nearly $2 billion in total by the night of the Iowa caucus. However, he only rose about five points in polls during that time period, indicating that the media coverage was not due to an actual increase in the appeal of his campaign. As voters headed to the primaries in February, they were subjected to a month of $400 million worth of coverage for a GOP candidate with just over a third of his party’s support, the same amount of support that then-Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders had amassed at the time. In comparison, Sanders had received scraps of publicity, as his total coverage in a year of campaigning was unable to match Trump’s air time in one month.
Sanders, like Trump, has represented a populist sentiment roaring back into U.S. politics. While it wouldn’t be right to lump him and Trump together as similar candidates, their bond is found in the common ground they both cover. Both of their successes are based on the contemporary phenomena of rising inequality giving way to anti-establishment sentiment and qualms about the economic or cultural standards emerging in recent decades. For this reason, media coverage becomes all the more important for them as they dust off previously dismissed ideologies and struggle to broach new proposals to the public. In the same way that many Americans would often dismiss Libertarian or Green Party candidates, Trump’s authoritarianism and Sanders’ democratic socialist positions required a greater effort for familiarization among a public entrenched in a different mode of thinking.
For populists in particular, media coverage can often highlight the political significance of their movement. By definition, the populist is one who fights for the common folk, who believe they have been wronged by an elite class. The more exposure a populist gets — especially exposure of their widespread support — the more people are led to believe that there is a pressing notion of dissatisfaction in the populace. Whether or not they exactly agree with the priorities of the populist, people can be persuaded to vote with their fellow citizens out of a care for general welfare, especially if they find their party’s other choices underwhelming. The imbalance of media coverage by the end of February was almost $2 billion for Trump to Sanders’ $321 million, all while they were polling at equal percentages. Whether it is Trump or the news media to blame, there has been undeniable damage done to the liberal populist cause by way of egregious misrepresentation of the state of the nation.
In his constant media appearances, Trump has created a pessimistic economic psuedo-reality. Sanders has been pessimistic as well, but Trump has accomplished it in such a way that paints the solutions offered by Sanders as completely counterintuitive. For example, in a world where economic depression stems from American jobs being taken by immigrants or shipped away to China and Mexico, Sanders’ proposition to raise taxes and make college free is almost incoherent. Translate this dynamic to the large scale of mass media, and everyone’s reality shifts a bit towards Trump’s, even those voting in the Democratic primary. In effect, Donald Trump’s massive media presence has polluted the populist cause, harming Sanders’ image and even diluting the energy of the current populist movement in the U.S. through divisive demagoguery.