The Trump Phenomenon

With the US presidential elections a few months away Donald Trump is dominating the headlines once again. In this three part series we look at the Trump phenomenon
19th June 202418 min

By Abdullah as-Siddiq

With the US presidential elections a few months away, Donald Trump is dominating the headlines once again. Trump cleaned the floor to become the republican presidential nominee, despite several court cases against him. In this three-part series we look at the Trump phenomenon. In this first part we look at how Trump defeated the major Republican names in the primaries in 2015.

Donald John Trump was born in 1946 as the son of Frederick Christ Trump, a wealthy real-estate developer based in New York city, America. During the 1970s he joined his father’s business and eventually became a prominent real-estate developer himself. This made him a wealthy man, as a consequence of which he regularly featured in the Forbes list of wealthy Americans from the 1980s onward.[1]

Trump used this status to become a media personality. In 1987 he published a book, “The Art of the Deal”, which ended up being on the New York Times Best Seller list for 48 weeks. During the 1990s he then became a regular guest on a television talk show, the Howard Stern Show. Eventually, in 2003, Trump even launched his own television show, The Apprentice.[2]

He had flirted with the idea of becoming a politician since 2000. That year he said he was considering participating in the presidential elections. He said the same during the run-up to the elections in 2004, 2008 and 2012.  In none of these cases did Trump take part in the election debates, when during 2015 rumours developed that he might join the elections of 2016, almost no one took these seriously.[3]

However, on the 15th of June 2015, in the lobby of his Trump Tower in New York, Donald Trump formally announced that he would join the race to become the 45th president of the United States. It is said that an event in 2011 inspired him to do so. During April 2011, at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Donald Trump was lampooned by President Obama, which motivated him to join the presidential race. He first began to support various politicians, with significant amounts of money. And he reached out, informally, to the leaders of the Republican Party. Not only its leading politicians, but also the donors and media magnates that supported it. Because Trump was a celebrity, the Republican Party enjoyed its affiliation with Trump. It helped them to attract attention, and thus to gain favour with political donors and American voters. The resulting interactions convinced Trump to speak to professional election campaign managers, in a bid to learn more about his chances of winning an election and about the preparations he would need to make to run a competitive campaign.[4]

The Trump Platform

Both during and immediately after his 2015 speech, Trump set out the platform of policies on the basis of which he would run for president of the United States.[5]

This platform was markedly different from the one he formulated in 2000. At that time, he considered running for president as the candidate for the Reform Party, and he positioned himself as a progressive focused on anti-discrimination, gay rights, universal healthcare and tax reform to increase the tax burden on wealthy Americans.[6] In 2015, however, Trump presented himself as a strongly conservative political outsider. This time, his basic proposition was that established politicians of the previous years, both Democratic and Republican, had weakened the United States. “Our country is in serious trouble”, he said. “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. (…) When did we beat Japan at anything? (…) When do we beat Mexico at the border?.” This, Trump said, had caused the problems the American people were experiencing, such as poverty, crime, a lack of jobs, drugs, and terrorism. “They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. The United States has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. (…) A lot of people can’t get jobs. They can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs. (…) We’re becoming a third world country, because of our infrastructure, our airports, our roads, everything.” He promised that as president, he would fix all the mentioned problems. “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military. (…) We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again. (…) I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places. I’ll bring back our jobs, and I’ll bring back our money. (…) I would build a great wall, (…) a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. (…) Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. (…) I will find the guy that’s going to take that military and make it really work. (…) I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. (…) I will immediately terminate President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration[7]. Fully support and back up the Second Amendment.[8] (…) Rebuild the country’s infrastructure. (…) Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts. Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse, but save it. (…) Renegotiate our foreign trade deals. Reduce our $18 trillion in debt. And strengthen our military and take care of our vets. (…) if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.

Perhaps most importantly, Trump promised that once in office he would not be like the other politicians. “Well, you need somebody, because politicians are all talk, no action. (…) We have losers. We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.” And he promised he would place the ordinary Americans at the core of his policies, but promising, unlike the other politicians, he would not listen to America’s elites. He promised he would not do the bidding of big business. And would not be influenced by their lobbyists or their money. “I don’t need anybody’s money. I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.

Trumps platform in 2015 was markedly different from the one he formulated in 2000

Through this platform Trump positioned himself to tap into a sentiment that had been building for years among large segments of conservative America, but that had been ignored by mainstream Republican politicians. Since 2008, namely, a majority of Americans told pollsters that they believed the country was on the wrong track. Foreign wars, terrorist threats, recessions, slow growth, political gridlock, culture wars, and declining incomes undermined the faith they had in America’s systems and established politicians.[9] One of the first expressions of this sentiment was the Tea Party movement, the first populist movement by angry, white middle-class, conservative, Republican voters of the 21st century. It was launched in 2009 in response to President Obama’s handling of the Global Financial Crisis, which featured massive bailouts for the banks who had caused the crisis, but not for the people who suffered its consequences through loss of jobs and homes. The view of the Tea Party movement was that the American government, “Washington” as they referred to it, was incompetent. That wherever it intervened, it only made matters worse. The Tea Party movement therefore argued for a smaller government, with more freedom for the people, and lower taxes. It also called for America to return to an isolationist foreign policy.

Trump aligned himself with this sentiment regarding America and its federal government in Washington DC.

The Road to the Presidency: The Republican Pre-Primaries of 2015

Initially, almost no one believed Donald Trump had any real chance to win the election. They thought other candidates from the Republican Party had much better prospects, because they were more experienced politicians, more capable, and more realistic in the policies they proposed. The opinion polls also suggested Trump could not win. According to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, only 3.6% of Republican voters supported Trump to become the Republican candidate for the presidency, the lowest of all Republicans vying for the position at that time.[10]

Only a few analysts felt Trump stood a chance. Republican media strategist Adam Goodman believed Trump’s status as an outsider billionaire, and his “America First” slogan, could be appealing to the segment of American voters that believed the country was not doing well. “In a way he’s sending a signal to a lot of Americans who are not making it, which is: ‘Put me in place, and I will make sure America’s brand is back on top again’. ‘I will make sure that when I am president of the United States, I will do everything I can to put you first, and allow you the opportunities I had to make it and fulfil the American dream’. (…) That’s a pretty sexy message for anyone to hear.” But such voices were the exception, as evidenced by analysis of media reporting of the race for the Republican candidacy during 2015.[11]

That year, Trump received much more media attention than other candidates. Two indicators normally explain the news coverage a candidate receives. First, standing in the polls. Second, the ability to raise money for campaigning. A strong performance in these areas indicates a person is a viable candidate, and thus worthy of being spoken about. Trump was neither high in the polls, nor did he have a lot of funds available to him to run his campaign. But, he benefited from the media personality he had created before turning to politics. And because journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational, the outrageous, since that is the type of story that can catch and hold an audience’s attention, Trump made for perfect media content. Consequently, from the 1st of January to the 31st of December, 2015, Trump received positive and neutral coverage by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post worth an estimated $55 million, some 40% more than his main competitors Jeb Bush, Mark Rubio and Ted Cruz. 

almost no one believed Donald Trump had any real chance to win the election. They thought other candidates from the Republican Party had much better prospects, because they were more experienced politicians, more capable, and more realistic in the policies they proposed.

This positive media coverage for Trump was not because of his analysis of America’s situation, or the solutions he proposed. The focus of by far most media reports is on the results of the polls, and the activities and events undertaken by the candidates. During 2015, only 12% of media reports on Trump focused on his policies, and 6% on his personal characteristics. The media typically applies four basic storylines when reporting on elections. A candidate is either “leading”, “trailing”, “gaining ground”, or “losing ground.” Of these four, the most positive one is the “gaining ground” storyline, as it creates an image of a candidate as the underdog, who emerges from the back of the pack, against the odds, to defeat the expected winner. It is a storyline that is very impactful in American society.  The media typically reported on Trump as the underdog candidate gaining ground. He started with very low poll numbers, but was able to make these numbers increase almost consistently. The activities and events Trump participated in also drew large crowds. Two out of three media reports were really about this.

Trump was not the only candidate who experienced this support from the media. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all received substantial coverage during 2015. Jeb Bush led the polls early on, and as a result received mostly the “leading candidate” positive coverage during the first half of 2015. This changed during the second half of 2015 when his results in the polls worsened – causing the media to refer to him as the candidate “losing ground”, a negative portrayal. Marco Rubio’s results in the earliest polls hovered around 5 – 10% support, which made him a viable candidate, as a result of which he received substantial positive media coverage early on. Ted Cruz also achieved 5 – 10% support in the early polls. For most of 2015 this didn’t change, which supported his media coverage in the same way it did Marco Rubio. Because Rubio’s poll results did not increase as the year progressed, the media lost some interest in him as nothing exciting happened to capture their interest. On the other hand, in the last two months of 2015 Cruz’s poll numbers began trending upward, which drove the positive media coverage for him upward.

The second largest category of subjects covered by the media when it came to Trump in 2015 was scandals. During 2015 scandals involving Trump received more attention than scandals involving the other Republican contenders. 12% of all media coverage of Trump addressed his scandals, of which 43% was negative in tone. For Ted Cruz, for example, the numbers were 9% and 32%, respectively.

Taken together, by the end of 2015 all these media reports had created an image of the Republican Primary election that would take place in 2016, as a race in which Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were the candidates with a realistic possibility of winning.

The Road to the Presidency: The Republican Primaries of 2016

Trump’s platform, his personality, and the media attention, significantly increased support for him. This showed in the poll numbers throughout 2015. In fact, from July onwards, he was the favourite candidate of Republican voters in almost all major polls. The polls also found that those who supported Trump generally did so because they were “disgusted” by the conventional Republican Party politicians, so they wanted to give an “outsider” a chance. Nevertheless, throughout 2015 the leaders of the Republican Party refused to acknowledge that Trump had a chance of winning the Republican Primary and becoming the Republican candidate for the presidential elections of 2016. They assumed he would make a mistake that would turn off the voters. Or that a scandal would damage him beyond repair. And that eventually the voters would realise that only a conventional, established Republican politician could do the job of president better than him.[12]

Early 2016, however, some in the leadership of the Republican Party, the so-called GOP, started to become worried. They realised Trump was becoming a serious candidate.[13] But, they did not want a Republican candidate for the presidency who was not a conventional, established Republican politician. They did not want someone who criticised the other Republican politicians. Worse still, someone who criticised the policies the Republican Party had been promoting for decades. Leading Republicans therefore began efforts to unite the Republican Party against Trump. Karl Rove, the master strategist of George W. Bush’s campaigns, argued that a Donald Trump victory in the Republican Primaries would be catastrophic for the Republican Party. Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican members in the United States’ Senate, laid out a plan to try and make sure all Republican politicians would explicitly argue against Trump. The Republican strategists Alex Castellanos and Gail Gitcho, both presidential campaign veterans, reached out to dozens of the party’s leading donors, including the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, in an attempt to gather money for a media campaign against Trump. But none of these plans were able to unite the Republican Party against Trump. For one, because many members and donors continued to believe that Trump could not win, and thus that action to prevent it was not necessary.[14] For another, because the other Republican politicians in the Republican Primary race did not want to collaborate against Trump. So, when Mitt Romney, himself a former Republican candidate for the presidency in 2008, tried to embarrass Donald Trump by asking him to show his tax returns, because this would reveal that Donald Trump was not as wealthy as he had said he was, almost nobody paid attention and even fewer supported him in his efforts.[15]

Some in the leadership of the Republican Party, the so-called GOP, started to become worried. They realised Trump was becoming a serious candidate. But, they did not want a Republican candidate for the presidency who was not a conventional, established Republican politician

While the elites of the Republican Party grew colder towards Trump, the media continued to love him.[16] Its fascination with Trump’s candidacy, which had begun in 2015, carried into the Republican Primary election phase, which lasted from the 1st of January until the 7th of June, 2016. Week after week, Trump got the most press attention. There was not a single week when Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich topped Trump’s level of coverage.

For as long as there were competitors in the race, this Trump coverage was slightly balanced toward the positive (53%). After Trump’s competitors all left the race, however, and Trump became the only remaining candidate, the media coverage flipped to become largely negative (61%). This had to do with the subjects the media likes to cover during an election race. Most media attention looks at the polling results. During early 2016, Trump performed well in the first four contests, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. This made for an interesting story, as it meant the “underdog” who was “gaining ground” in 2015, had closed the gap with his rivals to become the “leading candidate”, and thus explains the positive coverage Trump received over this period. However, the small amount of coverage dedicated to Trump’s policies and character was an almost constant source of negative coverage. Here the number of negative reviews was 10 times larger than the number of positive reviews. Therefore, as Trump’s eventual victory in the Republican Primary became more certain, and media attention for his successes in the primary-elections reduced while attention for his policies and characteristics increased, the overall media coverage of Trump turned decisively negative during April and May of 2016 (54%). During June, the last month of the Republican Primaries when it had become certain that Trump would win, the coverage Trump received even became significantly skewed to the negative (61%).

Trump’s ultimate victory in the Republican Primary was not, therefore, because he was supported by the elites in the Republican Party, or because the media pushed him. The media did feature him, but not any more positively than the other candidates, who could rely on support from leaders within the Republican Party. Trump won the Republican Primary because the Republican voters really bought into the persona he created for himself, an outsider candidate who would not do the same thing all other politicians did, but would sincerely and honestly address their complaints, the complaints which they had been having for a long time, but that had never been listened to by the conventional, established Republican politicians. As a result, the more these conventional, established Republican politicians criticised Donald Trump for not conforming to the Republican orthodoxy, the more these Republican voters loved him.[17]

In part 2, we look at how Trump was able to win the presidency in 2016, despite the Republican party working against him. We analyse how the Republicans manoeuvred to manage Trump’s cabinet decisions and we look at Trumps key policies as President and if he was any different from previous presidents. 

Part 1 – The Trump Phenomenon

Part 2 – The Impossible President

Part 3 – Trump 2.0



[1] Donald Trump – Wikipedia

[2] Media career of Donald Trump – Wikipedia

[3] Stop pretending — Donald Trump is not running for president (

[4] Donald Trump’s Presidential Run Began in an Effort to Gain Stature – The New York Times (

[5] Full text: Donald Trump announces a presidential bid – The Washington Post

[6] The Trump Inheritance | Fintan O’Toole | The New York Review of Books (

[7] The mentioned executive order promised to give formal residency to foreigners residing in the United States illegally, Immigration reform in the United States – Wikipedia

[8] The second Amendment to the United States constitution is the right to bear arms. Second Amendment to the United States Constitution – Wikipedia

[9] How Donald Trump Won the G.O.P. Nomination | The New Yorker

[10] The day Trump ran for president (and what people predicted) – BBC News

[11] Pre-Primary News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Race: Trump’s Rise, Sanders’ Emergence, Clinton’s Struggle | Shorenstein Center

[12]Trump nears 100 days on top (

[13] How Donald Trump Evolved From a Joke to an Almost Serious Candidate | The New Republic

[14] Here’s why Donald Trump won’t win the Republican presidential nomination | Donald Trump | The Guardian

[15] Inside the Republican Party’s Desperate Mission to Stop Donald Trump – The New York Times (

[16] News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences | Shorenstein Center

[17] Why Republican Voters Decided On Trump | FiveThirtyEight

One comment

  • J.J.

    29th June 2024 at 1:29 am

    So D.J. Trump believes he’s a phenomenon. Where at times he is a Zombie, and/or a walk-in is controlling him. All meaning his consciousness is a spaced-out ego, yes?


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