Creating buzz — that curious mixture of baloney and authenticity that generates excitement — is not exactly new as a campaign strategy. But Donald Trump is taking it to new heights.
By the new Trump metric, the more the public knows about your crackpot ideas and your sex life, the better for buzz that translates into big rallies and action in voter booths. Combine the presumptive GOP nominee’s instinct for generating talk and attention with a volatile, angry electorate, and you are in the realm of possibility that Trump might just buzz himself into the White House.
The predictable, the orderly and the consistent do not create the best buzz. Buzz is born of a disturbance in the universe. At a time when establishment politics seems to be offering so little to so many, the American people understandably have their receptors tuned to something — anything — coming over the transom that does not sound like the warmed-over results of focus groups.
People want to be part of something, and the buzz surrounding Trump allows them to be part of the rejection of a failed status quo. That feels good. Intoxicating. Yes, it gives people a buzz.
Candidate Barack Obama got a good share of buzz during his 2008 presidential campaign, surprising the pundits with his ascendency over rivals. Long before him, John F. Kennedy proved to be a master of it during the 1960 campaign season, as Kathryn Cramer Brownell and Bruce J. Schulman have pointed out. Kennedy so successfully used the star-making strategies of Hollywood, where his family had strong ties, that Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, an established insider, groused that his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination “never did a thing. But somehow . . . he managed to create the image of himself as . . . a youthful leader who would change the face of the country.”
Trump, for his part, has proven that no matter how unsavory the content, regardless of pricks of conscience, buzz takes on a life of its own. Whether he is alluding to the size of his penis, or proposing an $8-billion wall on the border that Mexico would pay for, or insulting a female newscaster with menstrual references, his words and whims will be endlessly discussed.
On television, on Twitter, at backyard barbecues, Trump is the inexorable topic. From the ridiculous to the outrageous to the occasionally spot-on — like his suggestion that hedge-fund managers “get away with murder” paying low taxes — his take on just about everything reverberates throughout the vast hive mind of popular and political culture.
“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about,” Oscar Wilde once said, “and that is not being talked about.” Trump intuitively grasps the concept. He added his own noxious flavor in a comment to Esquire in 1991: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
Buzz means being talked about. But it’s more than that. It’s making your name a subject of inquiry and speculation — and, above all, exerting a gravitational pull toward yourself. At the end of March, Google trend data revealed that Trump was already the most-searched presidential candidate of all time, beating out Obama’s Google popularity in 2008.
On May 18, the day Trump released names of his likely nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court, the top trending search on Google was “Donald Trump, Supreme Court of the United States.”
Exposure is key. Trump learned this early pursuing periodicals like Gentleman’s Quarterly, deploying over-the-top comments to garner press coverage during his ownership of the United States Football League and eventually affixing his name to anything, from hotel towers to wine to Serta Trump Home Collection, a line of mattresses.
This gift for exposure was extended and perfected during Trump’s 14 seasons on The Apprentice, when Americans were treated to his outsized personality bursting from their TV sets every week. His instantly recognizable face has grinned and glowered from magazine covers ranging from Time to The Economist to Playboy, and those issues tend to be top sellers — a phenomenon known in the trade as the “Trump bump.”
As of March, a New York Times analysis found that Trump had been given nearly $2 billion worth of coverage by broadcast, online and print outlets — essentially advertising for which he paid not a penny. Trump, with more than eight million Twitter followers and a knack for the medium, can often bypass the traditional media. He even makes news when he tweets nothing at all.
To achieve maximum buzz, you don’t wait for other people to talk about you. You talk constantly about yourself. Need an endorsement? Fake one, as Trump was accused of doing in claiming support from baseball legend Pete Rose. In marketing classes, this is called “establishing your brand.” Buzz begets brand, and brand begets buzz.
If you have buzz, you can say all manner of things that aren’t true. If you sound scripted while doing it, you lose out on buzz (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). If you have an aristocratic disdain of being talked about, you will not create buzz (former Florida Governor Jeb Bush). If you lack the narcissistic chutzpah to toot your own horn the loudest, buzz will elude you (Ohio Governor John Kasich).
Writing about Trump in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan, horrified at the billionaire’s rise, commented, “It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities.”
To be sure, there are dangerous, threatening alarm bells ringing throughout the Trump buzz — echoes of xenophobia, mindless sexism and thuggish authoritarianism. But there is also a ring of truth. The gulf between the will of the powerful and the will of the people has become too large, and the person who is willing to say that clearly will have buzz in their favor, as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has also found.
Trump’s populism may be problematic, but its target is real. It’s not that Americans are increasingly open to being led by anyone, but rather that a certain category of someones — advocates of unregulated markets, politicians beholden to moneyed interests, technocrats offering mere tweaks to the system — find it increasingly difficult to connect to a wide swath of the American public.
As long as large groups of Americans feel unheard and disenfranchised, increasingly insignificant and powerless over their dwindling destinies, then whoever buzzes their way through the establishment bulwark becomes mesmerizing.
Elites might assert that inevitable, disembodied global economic forces are at work against the American people, and suggest that anyone offering an alternative to the status quo is a liar or a demagogue. But that line sounds empty to many working-class voters right now — no matter how many times it is repeated.
A void has been created that yearns to be filled. The buzz flows in.