Commentary Magazine

Trump the Shock Jock: A Pre-Mortem

Image by © Julie Dermansky/Corbis.

So Donald Trump just called for a ban of all Muslim entry into the United States — tourists, too. Instantly, he changed the focus of today’s political news from the failure of Barack Obama’s speech and (more important in Trump’s eyes) a rigorous new poll in Iowa showing him falling behind Ted Cruz and into a virtual tie with Marco Rubio. So this is what we’re going to be talking about now. It’s ridiculous, disgusting; it’s bad for the Republican Party, and it’s bad for the United States, but big deal, really. What matters is that Trump is an attention junkie and, like all junkies, he will now say and do anything to get his fix and the fix has been gotten.

But this is the end of him.

Now, I know the general line about Donald Trump is that his outrageousness and irresponsibility doesn’t hurt him. He says things no politician could say and gets away with it, or at least seems to get away with it because his poll numbers don’t crater. It’s hard to argue with this point, save for the fact that polling is incredibly unreliable and not a single person has yet to cast a single vote for Trump — so we actually have no idea what has hurt him or harmed him or made trouble for him or helped him. I know people thought he was through by proposing total deportation of all illegals and the construction of a wall. And I know he’s connecting to post-San Bernardino fears of Islamist radicalization and penetration.

Nonetheless, he’s finished, and here’s why:

If the polls do indicate with some accuracy his level of support, he’s got something around 25 percent of the GOP primary vote. This means that five months into his candidacy, running as the best-known and most covered person in the race, 75 percent of those polled are not only choosing someone else, they are not supporting him. For him to win, he has to get more of them—a great many more.

How will what he said today win him new voters? He presumably already has the support of those who believe in adopting the most extreme hard line against the foreign-born, Muslim and Mexican and otherwise. Trump’s ludicrous call to block Muslims worldwide from entering the United States isn’t an honest response to ISIS-inspired and-directed terror; rather, it’s the polar opposite of a serious policy proposal. Coming as it does a day after the president’s astonishing Oval Office claim that he’s just going to pursue the same approach he’s been pursuing because it’s working, Trump’s ban cannot possibly satisfy Republicans who think the country is under threat from ISIS and want to hear exactly how we’re going to destroy it, as the president has promised. This kind of thing will not win him a single new vote, and may cost him some of what he has. Meanwhile, Cruz and Rubio are likely rising and Ben Carson is likely falling.

Trump has fallen prey to the classic temptation of his true pop-culture model: The shock-jock. He’s been the guy some love and as many, if not more, love to hate — and whose willingness to transgress all cultural norms in a fearless and irrepressible manner reduces his haters to sputtering impotence and his fans to a kind of raging bliss at his ability to goose the powers-that-be. But it’s an inherently unstable model, as the careers of most shock-jocks prove.

Time and again, over the past 40 years, we’ve seen certain types of radio and television personalities rise due to their outrageousness and willingness to say and do anything — and then either effectively blow themselves up, burn themselves out, or end up in pop-culture purgatory when they just take it all a bit too far. For a while, they seem to be the new voice of American populist anger, but it all just burns too hot. They get fired or they change approaches or they change networks. A few are drummed out of the public sphere; others just lose whatever purchase they had and fade into irrelevancy.

Talkers as various as Joe Pyne, Stanley Siegel, Morton Downey Jr., Bob Grant, “Dr. Laura,” Doug “the Greaseman” Tracht, Wally George, Mancow Muller, Don Imus, Anthony Cumia, and the oddly named Bubba the Love Sponge were and are among those who once seemed to have caught lightning in a bottle before saying the one thing they should not have said or moving from obnoxiously funny to hatefully unfunny. (Howard Stern, the master of them all, cashed in with a huge deal on satellite radio that has made him one of the richest people in show business but lost him his massive following.)

This Muslim-ban nonsense is, I believe, Trump’s burnout shock-jock moment. I could be wrong; others have been in predicting Trump’s demise before. But actual votes are going to be cast in 56 days, and this is when actual voters get actually serious.

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