Donald Trump and Jon Stewart aren’t so different after all

August 7, 2015
Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump is surrounded by news media in the "spin room" after the conclusion of the first official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in Cleveland

Presidential candidate Donald Trump in the spin room after the first official Republican candidate debate of the 2016 campaign in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

Thursday night’s entertainment programming featured the bombastic Donald Trump in the Republican primary debates, and the sarcastic Jon Stewart in his goodbye on The Daily Show. Though Stewart has repeatedly lampooned Trump’s candidacy, over the past 16 years, Stewart’s commentary has ingrained “showbiz politics” into all aspects of American political life — shaping an environment in which Trump’s candidacy can exist and thrive.

Over more than a half-century, television has essentially replaced the party as the modern political boss. Transforming political contests into an on-screen production has the democratic feeling of viewer participation — but it still maintains the reality of corporate control.

Comedian Jon Stewart tapes Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" at the University of Denver

Jon Stewart tapes ‘The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’ at the University of Denver in Denver, August 26, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Stewart’s long successful run and Trump’s six-week surge demonstrate how American voters have come to expect political discussions and debates to mirror prime-time TV entertainment programming. Though the Trump show and the Daily Show both present populist, anti-establishment points of view, their use of entertainment provides a way to actually reinforcere the political and economic power of the establishment that both regularly admonish.

Beginning in the 1950s, media consultants encouraged parties to make television central to winning elections. In his landmark 1956 book, Professional Public Relations and Political Power, the Princeton political scientist Stanley Kelley Jr. observed that television forced candidates to confront a new party boss — one that did not doll out favors, jobs or bribes to win votes.

This party boss — whether an advertising executive, political consultant, or celebrity — played media games. Rather than stuffing ballot boxes, this party boss worked to “mold the mind of the voter” by connecting the presidential hopeful to audiences with spectacle. Electoral success seemed to hinge on the ability to produce a political production and create a celebrity persona for candidates.

brownell -- jfk

President John F. Kennedy reaches out to the crowd at the Hotel Texas Parking Lot Rally in Fort Worth, November 22, 1963. REUTERS/Cecil Stoughton/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

This opened up the nomination process. It moved from party bosses sitting in the much-cited smoke-filled convention hall back rooms to a process that engages the wider public. In 1960, boyish Senator John F. Kennedy won the presidential nomination over the country’s most powerful Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, by appealing to primary voters as “Jack Kennedy fans.”

These “democratic events,” however, were also carefully orchestrated by JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, a former movie mogul. He used his privately funded version of a “Hollywood dream machine,” to elicit specific emotions and reactions from the American public.

During the 1966 California gubernatorial race, former screen actor Ronald Reagan framed himself as a “citizen politician.” His critique of New Deal policies stirred what commentators called a “Jacksonian chord in the public mind” — even as it was artfully crafted behind-the-scenes by his Kitchen Cabinet of wealthy California businessmen and developers.

Now, candidates are constructed in control rooms rather than smoke-filled rooms, creating a culture in which distrust of both the political and media establishment flourish.

Stewart’s legacy is that entertainment can provide a context for meaningful political conversations about the hypocrisy of elected officials and the distorting lens of cable news programs. On Thursday, Stephen Colbert celebrated how his mentor taught the Daily Show staff to discuss politics with clarity, intention and respect. But, Colbert also touched on how Stewart had gained power “in the realm of Washington politics and media” though his commentary. And he is right.

brownell -- obama on stewart

President Barack Obama waves to the audience after taping an interview for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart at the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, Oct. 27. 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Entertainment has become central to the political establishment. Late night political comedy has created an opportunity for presidential contenders to overcome voter cynicism through performative politics. President Barack Obama, for example, made seven appearances on the Daily Show, and has worked diligently to convert Stewart’s viewers into Democratic voters.

Now on the campaign trail, Republican candidates are working to emulate Obama’s strategy — with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush slow-jamming the news on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Trump, well, being Donald Trump — the reality television star and now star of the GOP polls.

In this over-produced political environment, both Trump and Stewart appeal to the simultaneous public desire for authenticity and the expectation of entertainment in politics — which also requires an elaborate commercial production. “Showbiz politics,” which both men practice, appears to be more democratic through its appeal to a broader range of voters. Yet it also reflects a corporate media structure that relies on extensive funding and targeted market research.

More than 5 million viewers tuned into the debates on Thursday night — many expecting entertainment. After the debates, viewers watched Stewart’s last episode of Daily Show — many expected meaningful political discourse. The two programs are interconnected and mutually reinforce one another as well as the political and media establishment they each critique.

Though both are voicing frustrations with the status quo, their political style inherently encourages consumption, not necessarily activism. FOX News has served as an entertainment forum for conservative candidates, the Daily Show has served as an outlet for liberal frustrations.

With elaborate comedic productions, Stewart reminds audiences about the need to hold elected officials and reporters accountable for their actions. Liberally minded millennials consume his show as a form of political activism, just as conservatives consume entertainment-driven FOX News commentary and talk-radio shows as part of their political identity.

What is still unknown are the implications of this modern “showbiz politics” — in which politicians and journalists appeal to the public as media consumers first, voters second. It can serve to reinforce the dominant empires of entertainment with passive consumption. But it can also open paths for viewers to turn their cynicism into activism and finally demonstrate media’s democratic potential.

18 comments

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Politics is showbiz. It always has been and always will be. Actors make great presidents. Storytellers and all the dramatics you can imagine. Stewart understands showbiz and that is all the edge you need to understand our modern incarnation of government. It is all in the advertising.

Posted by theshapeofthngs | Report as abusive

There is the important distinction that Jon Stewart isn’t running for President.

Posted by cited | Report as abusive

>Stewart’s commentary has ingrained “showbiz politics” into all aspects of American political life — shaping an environment in which Trump’s candidacy can exist and thrive.

Why in God’s name are you blaming Stewart for “creating an atmosphere” in which “Trump can thrive”? If anything, Stewart created an atmosphere that would limit Trump – by promoting honest and critical journalism.

It’s news sources like Fox News or CNN that allow Trump to thrive, by spreading fear and ignorance into the American people.

You say Donald Trump and Stewart aren’t different after all, but all you did was give some background on journalism and blame Stewart for “showbizz politics” to link him to Trump and undermine him.

What a joke.

Just like this article.

Posted by Rane | Report as abusive

“media’s democratic potential”? Absurd.
Media is baking their bread only.Two main medias one bias for republicans and the other for Democrats.Look at nature of questioning how one lady tried to pull down Trump to add voters of women to other candidates or to eliminate his supremacy,though such efforts have little effect except to create some more fodder for media.Today’s voter is not that dumb and is more enlightened to know well how media works.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

A lot of words to state the obvious. Seems to suggest this didn’t happen before television. Newspapers and radio didn’t exist?

Posted by peskymeme | Report as abusive

You are making a false equivalency. Jon Stewart and trump have nothing in common even in this way. Stewart may be entertaining but he has always had a respectful tone when talking to his opposites. That is why many of them were willing to go on his show. He may have been caustic at times but never with the total lack of decency that trump displays. Jon’s outbursts were calculated and precise as acknowledged by even his detractors. trumpet is just an obnoxious cannon out of control. It is possible to not be politically correct and be agreeable while disagreeing. trump is not. He is crude and arguably a megalomaniac. There is a vast difference and not at all comparable.

Posted by becknerfouch | Report as abusive

I think media and technology both have made Americans illiterate politcally.
They have no idea of the world they live in, they have some sort of fantasy that they live in the Greatest Country in the World, which is actually 7th in competetivness and 27th in literacy. They are also bigoted and lazy. So this form of politics as entertainment is perfect for the current mentality.
The only reason anybody pays attention to us is because we have the largest defense budget in the world, more than the next 4 countries combined.Politicians are only interested in the the people who own them and how they can best serve themselves. Your vote means nothing.

Posted by Maestro1 | Report as abusive

I think Brownell’s thesis framework is right but the examples she uses are flawed to make this a flawed analogy. If you discuss Ted Turner’s influence on TV news and then Fox’s addition of “Entertainment News”, then her analogy would be more sound (though still lacking perspective of politics since the country’s inception).

Stewart rode the media wave of nonsense that Turner and Fox (among others) built up rather than getting swallowed by the Tsunami of shallow entertainment news.

Posted by Shakatom | Report as abusive

Now Mr.Trump should appoint a woman manager ad prove he has no bias for women.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Jon Stewart is a modern Johnny Carson with a narrow appeal. Carson also made political jokes and followed the news in his monolog, but he wasn’t so sarcastic and overtly misleading. Johnny had fans from every age group, not sure Stewart did… and he surely had a smaller TV audience.

Posted by neelsn | Report as abusive

So they both are entertainers who specialize (stewart) or dally (trump) in politics. But they are totally different: Stewart is a man of character and Trump is morally bankrupt.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

What a ridiculous article.
Jon appeals to the rational. Trump appeals to the anger and absurdity.
Jon uses rational to insult irrationals. Trump use irrational to insults everyone else.
Unless you consider all these differences not worth mentioning.

Posted by hereiam2005 | Report as abusive

Your premise is absurd.

Posted by ekr | Report as abusive

And the next president of US is…

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

The basic logical fallacy here is that of false equivalence. The blather of academic language and an argument constructed of self-referential modern political fluff is so bad I expected the author to be a journalist or maybe a poli-science buffoon, not from a real academic field like history. O how Clio has fallen.

Posted by Rintrah | Report as abusive

This is easily the worst opinion piece I have ever read on Reuters. Mr. Stewart’s analytical approach to politics does not even remotely resemble Mr. Trump’s asinine and pugnacious worldview.
In fact, Stewart is the antithesis of Trump.
I hope the author’s new book is much more discerning than this inane article.

Posted by elprofesor66 | Report as abusive

even for a blog, this was exceptionally asinine.

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

Can’t believe you still have trouble printing what I post some times.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive