Call him “Teflon Don.”
A hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been his unique ability to survive waves of criticism after uttering offensive things that—by all conventional political wisdom—would sink a lesser candidate. The billionaire CEO called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” questioned John McCain’s heroism as a POW in Vietnam, and criticized the Carly Fiorina’s appearance all in the first three months of his campaign. With each successive gaffe, pundits stared in awe as Trump’s poll numbers remained dominant.
This weekend, however, the impervious Trump might have revealed his true weak spot. Trump hosted Saturday Night Live amid protests and boycotts from Latino advocacy groups, but what really made the night a disaster for Trump was his own performance. The episode found Trump floundering in weakly written sketches, and the man himself appeared stiff and—for perhaps the first time in his campaign—bored.
Trump, a great manipulator of media old and new, has found himself the target of a new kind of attention. Vox’s Ezra Klein called the appearance “bland and… toothless,” while prominent conservative Bill Kristol, who said he’d rather vote for a third party than for Trump, tweeted that the show was “a sign he’d already peaked.” It won’t be the candidate’s absurd public gestures that derail his campaign, it seems, but rather the moment when the public stopped being entertained.
Conservative pollster Frank Luntz has found Trump’s support untouched by criticisms of the candidate—with focus groups citing Trump’s outsider status and lack of concern for “being PC” or “hurting somebody’s feelings.” His television appearances—including the presidential debates held by Fox News, CNN, and CNBC—regularly shatter ratings records, just as tomorrow’s Fox Business Network debate likely will.
Trump is walking clickbait—a mere mention of his name is sure to draw attention to your article.
The Trump effect extends past cable news. As the Washington Post notes, Trump’s rating in the polls have mirrored the total amount of digital media coverage the candidate has received, with both factors peaking in July and August and dipping in the past month. This effect has created a cycle Trump has so far survived on, in which he fuels the media coverage that then fuels his support. Trump is walking clickbait—a mere mention of his name is sure to draw attention to your article. This expands his media coverage which, likewise, expands his outreach.
Much of this is likely from rubberneckers—people tuning in just to see what crazy thing he says next. And he always puts on: Trump is a swordsman who belittles his opposition, talks to reporters with the contempt that many conservatives have for the “liberal media,” and at any moment seems capable of delivering tomorrow’s headlining soundbite. The more he attacks the buttoned-up infrastructure of Washington, the more his supporters appear to love him.
A nine-year career as host of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice has shown Trump the value in embracing entertainment—and his online presence has emerged as the distilled essence of his wrestling villain stylings. Trump’s most frequent critique of his opponents is that they are “low energy” (e.g. Jeb Bush and Ben Carson). Trump’s campaign posted a video to Instagram comparing Bush’s speeches to a sleep aid, and when Carson began leading in the polls last month, Trump quipped: “We informed Ben, but he was sleeping.”
These aren’t just attempts to make either candidate appear weak in the face of oft-cited bogeymen like Vladimir Putin. Trump is reminding his supporters that the other guys are just more boring than he is. He’s relating with the low-information voters who poll for him. The high ratings of these debates does not, as an optimists might propose, reflect a renewed interest in public policy among the electorate. All this attention reflects is a renewed interest in Trump.
The Internet has aided Trump here as well. His instant access to 4.8 million Twitter followers means he has unprecedented 24-hour capabilities to both attract attention and change the news cycle. His frequent attacks on Fox News host Megyn Kelly have focused attention upon Trump numerous times, as did his feuding with Jeb Bush over George W. Bush’s legacy. The New York Times called Trump’s account “a tool of political promotion, distraction, score-settling and attack,” but it’s also a way to please supporters ever hungry for the kind of juvenile barb-trading that is central to the Trump brand.
The political value of being entertaining does not end with Trump and doesn’t always mean society is doomed to such infotainment. It’s always helped a candidate to have fun on the campaign trail: Richard Nixon set the gold standard with a now-legendary cameo on The Laugh In, while Bill Clinton’s sax solo on The Arsenio Hall Show was a major turning point in his campaign. As Trump has pointed out, many candidates have appeared on SNL—including Barack Obama in 2007—and late-night television as a whole has become a mandatory stop on the campaign trail.
But if Trump has been leading in the polls because he makes great TV and great Twitter, you wouldn’t be able to tell Saturday night—and it could spell the end of his campaign. The half-baked jokes—like Trump dancing to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” or playing an ignored laser harp player in a bar band—landed like a brick.
And a sketch that depicted what it would be like if Trump were president (he adds the word “huge” to the national anthem) reminded viewers Trump’s appearance was little more than free air-time for a presidential campaign; it was also of dubious legality, due to the FCC’s rules for equal candidate time on networks.
Were there any question about whether the appearance was a disaster for Trump, just look at the reviews: The A.V. Club gave the episode an “F” rating, while Vulture called Trump “a black hole of comedic antimatter.” And the reaction on Twitter to his job as a host was overwhelmingly negative.
I hate that #SNL made me visit Trump’s account to see if they were committed to the transmedia dimension of this sketch. (They’re not).— Myles McNutt (@Memles) November 8, 2015
meanwhile, as this painfully bad SNL drags on, larry david inches toward the fire alarm like pic.twitter.com/ox3IPvugbG— Dennis Mersereau (@wxdam) November 8, 2015
And this backlash—combined with a resurgent Ben Carson—could bring Trump’s lead in the polls to its long-awaited end. Since September, the Republican race has settled into a two-man race between—with a RealClearPolitics average showing Trump and Carson virtually tied on a national level.
Trump doesn’t try to be entertaining because it suits him—he does it because he needs to. Moderates are far less likely to follow politics at all, let alone this early in the process. Barring transforming himself into a substantial policy wonk, Trump needs to cling to the act of a carnival barker because it’s all he has. Trump makes events like GOP primary debates and sketch comedy into must-see TV through his ability to eschew the script most candidates write for themselves. Carson supporters might like him because his views don’t reflect a career politician. Trump supporters like him just because he isn’t as boring as one.
Like all schticks, this has its limits. Trump is not a master of reinvention and, as an entertainer, has largely played the same character for three decades. Like any performer who gets by on shock and awe, Trump on SNL was a man grappling for the next big viral headline yet found nothing but air.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Illustration by Max Fleishman