Almost every policy Donald Trump has championed is built around Pat Buchanan’s positions on trade, treaties, and immigration. Almost every tactic he’s used to best his competition—controversy, outrage, personal attacks—is borrowed from the repertory of Howard Stern. But by taking Buchanan’s positions, blending them with Stern’s tactics, and adding in his own talent, Trump has managed to produce a success that is all his own.
When Trump started to run, I was as skeptical as anyone else. But as I listened to him in January, I suddenly realized I’d heard this before. I worked at WRC radio in Washington, D.C., when Pat Buchanan first went on the air in the 1970s. Later, I worked at the station carrying Howard Stern. And watching Trump reminds me a great deal of watching their own rise.
Like them, Donald Trump is a broadcasting star—he’s more experienced on television than any of his rivals, and that’s where presidential races are won or lost. The only presidential contender with more television experience than Ronald Reagan is Donald Trump. But broadcasting has changed since Reagan’s days. In order to be a big star in broadcasting today, personalities have to be so polarizing that they are hated as well as loved. Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Chris Matthews all achieved remarkable ratings—and Trump’s presidential campaign has similarly driven cable news ratings through the roof. This willingness and ability to be confident, controversial, and combative can create big ratings, revenues, and salaries.
Howard Stern took this formula one big step further, aggressively attacking his competitors on the air. Mentioning your competitor’s name, much less attacking him this way, violated an unwritten rule of radio. Stern didn’t just stretch that rule, he shattered it—launching attacks that were so intense, relentless, and outrageous that his rivals felt compelled to respond. They reacted on their own shows, providing free advertising for Stern. Listeners tuned in to hear Stern for themselves, and many of them stayed. Stern used this technique to become the top-rated radio personality in almost every major American city, before taking a $500 million contract to move to satellite radio.
Trump has employed this same technique masterfully against his Republican opponents. None of Trump’s victims have figured out what hit them—much less how to hit back.
Most conservative politicians, in direct contrast to conservative talk-show hosts, are deep-dipped in nice. They couldn’t do nasty if they had an instruction manual. Marco Rubio looked ridiculous attacking Trump. Jeb Bush at least had the good sense not to do something for which his mother would spank him. Ted Cruz was consistently awkward, whatever he did.
The knee-jerk reactions of the other Republican candidates to Trump’s attacks added to his advantage in earned media, just like Stern’s opponents did 25 years earlier. Trump’s political foes foolishly complained about Trump in their own television interviews when they should have been making compelling cases for their own campaigns. Trump was news when he was on TV, and Trump was news when the other candidates were on TV.
But what’s winning Trump the primaries could end up costing him the general election. He’s earning support the same way that Howard Stern did—but Stern’s audience is 73 percent men, and just 27 percent women. Similarly, a Gallup poll found that 70 percent of women have an unfavorable view of Trump. That’s a big problem for him. According to The Washington Post, 4 percent more women than men voted in 2012. In the general election even women who agree with the substance of Trump’s message might hate his style.
However, he may have an even greater problem than a gender gap—he faces a gap between broadcasting and politics. In broadcasting, a plurality is sufficient to achieve enormous success. If you earn significantly higher broadcast ratings than multiple competitors, advertisers will shower you with revenue. If a top show draws as much as 41 percent of the audience, it gets a huge premium in ad revenue, because advertisers can reach a large portion of their target audience in one show instead of many. This plurality has worked so far for Trump in the Republican primaries, where he faced 16 competitors, and won 41 percent of the vote.
In the general election, however, he’ll have to win a majority of electoral votes. That number is 270. Trump attracts many new voters to the GOP but his negatives with women are historically bad. Will the married suburban women who usually vote Republican hold their noses and vote for Trump?
But Trump has other strengths as a candidate. He took another lesson from Newt Gingrich. Four years ago, in a debate in South Carolina, Gingrich hammered the CNN moderator, John King, instead of answering a question about his ex-wife. King cowered. Conservatives loved it. Newt won a huge victory in the Palmetto primary.
Trump paid close attention. He now attacks media personalities at every opportunity. His feud with Fox’s Megyn Kelly, for example, worked to his advantage in multiple ways. It spoke to conservatives who had already become disenchanted with Fox. When Trump dumped the Fox debate, after the network refused to back down, it enhanced his appeal as an independent figure, willing to take on anyone. And although he ran the risk of being labeled a misogynist, the increased tension kept the focus on Trump and off everyone else.
He’s also attacked politicians. George W. Bush remains popular in military circles. South Carolina has a remarkable concentration of retired veterans and active-duty military personnel. Trump slammed Bush for invading Iraq, but won the Palmetto Primary, anyway.
Showing that there was no one—from a Fox anchor to a Republican president—whom he was afraid to attack, enhanced Trump’s appeal. And the fact that he got away with it only reinforced that. The crowds that had started to come out of curiosity began to identify with a man who modeled the fierce independence and dominance they aspired to themselves.
However, such attacks only work if the content is uniquely compelling. Stern’s content was compelling enough to make him radio’s biggest star for over 30 years. Pat Buchanan has been on the national stage since he wrote his 1968 speech for Spiro Agnew attacking the press bemoaning the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Trump wouldn’t have achieved his own success without a message that could draw tens of thousands to his rallies, or generate unlimited media coverage.
But Trump isn’t just a showman—he’s also a salesman. The first lesson in sales is to find what is causing your prospect pain, and then present a plausible solution to fix it.
This is where Pat Buchanan’s message on immigration, trade, and defense comes in. After Romney lost, many Republicans wanted to tack to the center on issues like illegal immigration and foreign trade. Trump saw a wide-open opportunity in the opposite direction. It is not hard to sell the notion that trade policy and illegal immigration have diminished American jobs and stagnated American wages. Although trade policy is wonkish, attacks on immigration put a face on the problem.
Many voters found themselves drawn to Trump—warts and all—in the hope that the man who has at least raised tough questions will also answer them. Why are American troops still in Europe to stop a Red Army that no longer exists? Why does America borrow from China and Japan to defend Japan from China? Why does it borrow from the Saudis to fund the navy that preserves the safety of the sea-lanes carrying Saudi oil to trade competitors in Europe and Asia? Why would Americans trade their jobs for cheaper stuff at the big-box stores?
Pat Buchanan said as much 25 years ago. But back then, the pain was largely theoretical. Today, the pain is very real. Rust Belt cities are struggling with the consequences of immigration and bad trade deals. Trump has understood that America’s dependence on imports can be turned into a strength; nations dependent on access to American markets can be forced to renegotiate the terms of the deals, or risk the stability of their own economies.
Trump may be less articulate, but he’s a much better showman and salesman than Buchanan. Trump targeted the market and the message perfectly. Many Republicans, Democrats, independents, and people who have never voted before feel that both parties have abandoned them. That’s an underserved market opportunity if ever there was one. And if Trump can march through the Rust Belt, he can take advantage of that opportunity.
The message and the messenger are inseparable. Reagan captured the voice of a polite era. Trump captures the voice of a coarser America saturated with outrageous reality TV and crude lyrics on the radio. Trump’s delivery is in a language that is dismissed by elites of both sides—but it’s one that average people get.
He often repeats himself. For political junkies and journalists, that can be excruciating. But repeating his points helps to ensure that even if people only hear him speak once, they’ll remember his message. In school, it’s called learning by rote. In advertising, it’s called frequency. In politics, it’s called winning.
In late April, the advertising mogul Donny Deutsch appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to weigh in on Trump’s prospects. “He’s going to win,” he told Joe Scarborough. “The Primary?” Scarborough replied. “No, he’s going to win the general,” Deutsch clarified. He called it “mother-in-law research.” The advertising expert knew that messaging and branding was working, even though he hated to admit it.
The substance is Buchanan. The style is Stern. The talent is all Trump. The new Ronald is Donald.