Donald Trump has broken new ground for a Republican presidential candidate.
He’s been arguably racist. He’s implied that a TV presenter was only asking tough questions because she was menstruating. He’s attacked the conservative news network, Fox News – an almost sacrilegious stance for many Republicans.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, while several rival campaigns had already started buying TV time last summer, he didn’t spend any money on TV advertising until January. That’s remarkably late by current US standards.
In spite of all this, Trump won the New Hampshire primary and looks set to win more primaries to come. I think he’s the most likely Republican nominee. How did he manage to do this?
Well, it’s partly his willingness to say things that few other politicians are willing to say. His plans to create a database of US Muslims as well as a wall on the Mexican border fall into this category. He’s tapping into the fears of middle-class white voters who believe that they’re being exploited by the “one per cent” and undercut by illegal immigrants. He’s brilliant at this.
His ability to say what Middle America really thinks has helped him become a master of modern media. Donald Trump has six million followers on Twitter, far more than any of his rival Republicans (Marco Rubio is in second place in the Twitter stakes and he has fewer than 1.2m followers). Trump won followers by being consistently controversial and “live tweeting” other events such as debates for the Democrat candidates and the Superbowl.
The way Americans now consume media has helped too. Traditional newspapers and TV networks have repeatedly criticised Trump for his extreme comments but many Americans now longer get their news from those sources. Instead more and more Americans live in online silos, only receiving information from like-minded providers that reinforce existing views and prejudices.
Even if Trump supporters do turn to the “mainstream media”, they no longer treat these providers with the same respect that they once did. What’s more, because Trump’s comments are so colourful, the traditional news providers can’t resist covering them and giving him more publicity. One survey showed that Trump was in the headline for 54 per cent of mainstream stories on the Republican presidential battle.
It’s this endless free publicity which enabled Trump to spend "only" $3.7m on TV ads in New Hampshire. By contrast Jeb Bush and his supporters spent more $36.1m, according to Morning Consult. I suspect that Trump didn’t even need to spend that money. He would have won New Hampshire without any TV advertising at all.
Trump now looks set to win South Carolina too. Just as previous demagogues have mastered the most modern form of media for their times, Trump has proved to be a master of social media and the wider internet.