Telescope: The telegenic Mr Trump

He is a TV natural, speaking in a way the average person can identify with.

Written by Shailaja Bajpai | Published:November 10, 2016 12:05 am

It is for the first time that a reality television star has been elected the President of the United States of America. That says something about reality television and the star. (Salman Khan are you watching? As the host of Bigg Boss, you have an alternative career beckoning you.)

It says that the ability of television to create and sustain star power is undiminished and superior to that of print, although in the case of President-elect Trump, it faces stiff competition from Twitter, the ace in his pack of tricks.

It says that “Donald” — as Hillary Clinton always chose to call him — with his TV-friendly persona and his communication skills, honed by years of apprenticeship on the TV show The Apprentice, was an irresistible force, especially when pitted against the often stiff and under eloquent Hillary.

Obviously, this is facile: There are many and deeper political, social, economic and cultural reasons for his victory but here we are looking only at the image he projected. That stood him in good stead.

Over the last year, anyone watching him on TV could tell how the camera and the audience loved him — despite his pouts, his shock of tangerine hair, his dangerous opinions. Trump is a TV natural, comfortable in his skin, speaking in a language the average person does and can engage and identify with. He was never complex — or complicated — but exuded a chilling but boyish charm even when he was being downright bigoted, racist, misogynist. He was a kind of “anti-hero” and revelled in the role.

It was said by some much before his sensational and overwhelming victory on Wednesday, when almost every opinion poll predicted his loss, that the other Republicans aspirants like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Speaker Paul Ryan would have been worthier opponents for Clinton. That’s untrue for anyone who watched him dismantle the said two gentlemen during the primary debates, with offensive nonchalance.

Fast-forward to the presidential debates. Most of the media in the US awarded the three contests to Clinton; well, he certainly lost the intellectual argument and she did manage to bring out the bumbling worst in him but the force of his personality — for want of a better description — dominated the proceedings, stalking her like he did in the second debate.

He has shown himself to be a master of the medium — TV and Twitter — conveying strong, definitive messages. “Make America great again” sounded more evocative than Clinton’s “Stronger Together”. And what about, “Crooked Hillary”? That was an albatross around her neck.

On Twitter and TV, he has been The Entertainer. And entertainment is an integral part of TV news now, as we in India know only too well. Hard news has given way to drama in popularity and Trump is nothing if not dramatic.

And so while the print media, “liberal” online comment websites, network television, cable news channels led by CNN — hammered away at how “uniquely unqualified” he was to be President, you watched in horror and amazement his “live” campaign speeches and the tumultuous response he received.

Throughout, his secret weapon has been himself, just being Donald Trump, spontaneous and obnoxious, very personal and homespun, supremely unselfconscious, even when he embarrassed himself, which he often did. Being politically incorrect, “nasty” to use his own word, was part of his (sex) appeal and the voters fell for it.

Whether these telegenic qualities are desirable in a president is an entirely different issue. Suffice it to say that when he isn’t himself, or when he has been tutored, his image takes a big beating. When he is scripted, he’s wooden and when he tries to be statesmanlike, he’s awkward — his appearance after his victory was by his standards, underwhelming because he was (a) overcome by the moment and (b) trying to be presidential.

Which Trump will turn up at the White House? Hmmm…

shailaja.bajapi@expressindia.com