Donald Trump isn’t interested in broadcasting. He’s interested in narrowcasting.
For months now, pundits and politicians have been waiting for Donald Trump to “pivot,” presumably moving away from his divisive, inflammatory rhetoric of the Republican primary and toward a more inclusive, mild demeanor for the general election. Since the first debate, we have seen a pivot, but not the one we’ve been waiting for: Trump has fully pivoted from presidential candidate to media mogul for a budding political entertainment movement.
This may seem like a strange transition for a presidential candidate to make, but recent events, and Trump’s reactions to them, suggest that his primary goal of building a lucrative audience has finally eclipsed his purported goal of building a winning electorate, with traditional allegiances to political party, fellow candidates, and even a running mate falling by the wayside.
Trump’s recent behavior is almost certainly informed by a need to place blame for his looming defeat. But it’s also an amplification of a thread that’s always been present in his campaign, even back when his poll numbers were rising instead of plummeting.
This amplification can seem confusing when analyzed through a political lens, which make his actions seem alienating at best, catastrophic at worst. But it makes perfect sense in the context of the medium that built Trump’s candidacy: TV. Instead of looking to the realm of politics to understand this move, look to television to find the key concept that’s driving the Trump campaign: narrowcasting.
Trump and the logic of narrowcasting
For those of us old enough to remember television in its pre-cable days, the medium thrived on the model of broadcasting in its first few decades: The big three networks competed to reach the largest audiences possible throughout most of their schedules. Weekly Nielsen ratings broke down the three-way race to judge whether ABC, CBS, or NBC could charge the highest ad rates based on their total number of viewers.
The rise of cable in the 1980s challenged the broadcasting model with a focus on narrowcasting, or appealing to a smaller slice of the audience, but with more dedication and homogeneity. MTV is a good example, having built a brand by becoming the top destination for teenagers in the 1980s and ’90s with a mix of music video, comedy, and early reality television. MTV never came close to the total number of viewers that broadcast networks reached, but its concentrated demographics and loyal viewership meant that advertisers who wanted to reach the valuable teen audience flocked to the channel.
Trump first came to prominence in this era, and surely his branding techniques were influenced by this narrowcasting logic: appeal to a niche audience with passion and dedication.
Even though Trump’s contemporary media persona was developed on the broadcast network NBC, The Apprentice aired long after networks gave up trying to capture the mass audience (save for events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics). During this time, Trump learned that not all viewers are equal, as networks only really care about the 18- to 49-year-old demographic, and most advertisers slice up ratings into even smaller demographic and psychographic niches. In the 21st century, a hit show needs only a fraction of the audience that it once did in the broadcast era.
The audience trumps the electorate
Narrowcasting worked for Trump as a reality TV star, and it worked for him in the Republican primaries, where his dedicated niche allowed him to outlast his competitors in a crowded field; he was ESPN beating out CMT, TNT, and TLC with a plurality of viewers. But the general election is a broadcasting model. The two big networks are the political parties vying for the largest total audience segment, and the presidential candidates serve as two flagship series going head to head on Wednesday night.
Trump has never fully embraced this approach, but since winning the primaries he has tried to straddle the line between narrowcasting to his base and reaching out to a broader array of voters that might put him over the edge.
The second debate marked the end of Trump’s broadcasting ambitions. The dual scandals of possible tax evasion and boasts of sexual assault caught on a hot mic would have prompted contrition, clarity, and humility from a typical candidate. Instead, Trump doubled down with boastful pride on his tax “savvy” and efforts to drag Bill Clinton down with him into the sexual morass. On the broadcast stage of the second debate, he reaffirmed the extremist assertions that function as applause lines at his narrowcast rallies.
Traditional political analysis saw Trump’s debate performance as designed “to pander to his core, demoralized supporters and motivate them through the final stretch of the campaign.” While it may have partly been that, it was even more pitched as political entertainment to excite his audience and aggregate them for the next step beyond the campaign.
Trump’s most grounded staffers, if not the man himself, must realize that pandering to his base will not allow him to turn around his plummeting poll numbers, as his core supporters will vote for him no matter what. Nothing Trump did at the debate or throughout the month of October was designed to win the general election; it’s all done in service of doubling down on his narrowcasting strategy, in order to move forward beyond the election.
Narrowcasting as a post-election wedge strategy
For Trump’s core audience, his pre-debate social media stunt with Bill Clinton’s accusers was the narrowcast main event. It highlighted his willingness to attack his opponent with every potential weapon, and rallied his supporters around what they know must be true, fact-checkers be damned — and to them, the fact that the stunt was criticized by the media simply proves that it must have been a success.
The broadcast debate was just an obligatory extension of Trump’s narrowcasting approach, constrained by the presence of an opponent, moderators, and undecided voters who all fall outside his target demographic. Trump’s rhetoric in a broadcast event is designed not to convince undecideds but rather to drive away undesirables.
One of television narrowcasting’s key strategies is to couple an appeal to a core audience with a demographic purity that drives away viewers who don’t fit into the desired niche. In other words, MTV thrived not just by reaching teenagers but also by alienating their parents. Economically, this strategy ensures that advertisers do not have to pay for viewers irrelevant to their target audience: Clearasil and the Gap happily paid to reach only their core teen market in the 1980s. Psychologically, driving away undesirable demographics ensures even more brand loyalty by creating an exclusive bubble of like-minded consumers; teens surely enjoyed it when adults complained about how confusing and obnoxious MTV was, knowing that their parents just didn’t understand.
Trump’s supporters are not unlike 1980s teenage MTV fans, eager to be targeted directly with messages and products that only they understand. Not only does this reinforce their own exceptionalism, it also drives a wedge between them and the broader electorate of “those people.” To mainstream audiences, Trump’s assertion that he would prosecute Hillary Clinton sounds like a dictatorial edict to jail opponents; to his narrowcast audience, it assures them that their deeply held belief that Clinton is a criminal will be taken seriously in Trump’s America.
Such rhetoric is beyond dog-whistle politics that subtly appeal to loyalists through subtext and code. Everything Trump said at the second debate, aside from his final answer praising Clinton as a fighter, could be easily heard within the far-right media bubbles of Breitbart, Hannity, and InfoWars. Trump’s outrageous behavior, whether executed live in a debate or caught on tape years ago, deepens his core support. But it also drives a wedge between the traditional GOP core of evangelical Christians and free market business interests — who have tried to distance themselves from Trump in recent days — and Trump’s agitated audience of white nationalists, who regard such distancing as evidence of a corrupt system that must be cleansed, party be damned.
Throughout the campaign, Trump’s actions have prioritized appealing to his narrowcast niche rather than a broader electorate. He has held rallies in noncompetitive states where he was already bound to win or lose, aiming to motivate and reward his national audience of true believers rather than pursuing a viable electoral map. As the campaign has gone on, Trump has limited his media appearances to friendly bubbles where he knows neither reporters nor viewers will expect anything beyond confirming his established brand. The prominence of media experts from such bubbles within his campaign, such as Roger Ailes and Stephen Bannon, has prompted speculation that Trump’s post-election plan is to develop a media empire to the right of Fox News, monetizing his aggregated audience via the very medium that built him up.
Whether Trump TV happens or not, Trump has long been mobilizing this national niche for post-election action, sowing the seeds for claims that the election was rigged and stolen, fanning the flames for poll-based intimidation efforts or other modes of insurrection. While I doubt Trump himself is particularly interested in rallying a violent mob — at least beyond trying to sell them Trump-branded pitchforks — clearly the audience he has aggregated will not simply accept a traditional “peaceful transition of power” without a fight.
Sadly, the parallel to television does not offer us much solace of precedent: The rise of narrowcasting in the 1980s has all but destroyed any vestiges of broadcasting to a mass audience of Americans. Instead, we’ve been wedged into smaller and smaller niches on many different sizes of screens, never to be united. Alas, it seems like our democracy has likely now suffered a similar fate, unless the Trump niche grows so small as to be outright canceled.
Jason Mittell is a professor of film and culture and American studies at Middlebury College. His books include Television & American Culture and How to Watch Television.
Also published on Medium.