Divisive rhetoric and unfolding scandals have made coverage of the US presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump seem more like a reality show than a presidential election. This election has been marked by vicious attacks between the two candidates, demonstrating the deep divisions within American society. Unlike the ‘clean, well-argued campaign that offers a choice between two sharply contrasting visions of the future’ between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, these elections reveal an American public frustrated and fearful of either outcome. This is not a normal election year because instead of comparing the candidates’ proposed policies, we are comparing each candidate based on public perceptions of one’s elusive promises and the other’s experienced practices.
Republican Party nominee Donald Trump has gained support despite his lack of experience in politics. Many have suggested that he is a brand, not a politician. Others point to his name, which is thought to be synonymous with financial strength and entrepreneurship (although recent reports have refuted these claims on the basis of multiple bankruptcies and fraudulent business deals like Trump University). His outsider status has also added to his rise, as many believe that Clinton appears untrustworthy. From a psychological perspective, Trump is successful in his campaigning of fear. Today many Americans are afraid. ‘Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism or crime’. With police brutality and gun violence, fears of crime are valid. However, Trump ‘has very deliberately stoked it and inflamed it and made it a centrepiece of his campaign, expertly manipulat[ing] many people’s fear of the other.’ Fear causes people to act in a defensive manner, revealing the frequent xenophobic and hateful rhetoric heard at Trump rallies.
The other character in this story is Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton, who, despite her years of political experience, continues to face opposition. According to a recent New York Times article, Clinton is still struggling to gain millennial votes. This is mainly due to her appearance of being untruthful or disingenuous – unlike her former democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders. Yet according to Politifact, a fact-checking website that checks the accuracy of claims made by elected officials and others in American politics, 51 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s statements are either true or mostly true compared to Donald Trump’s rate of 15 per cent. This reveals a common theme throughout this election season – how perceptions of the candidates are often more powerful than facts or experience.
Despite the need for professionalism in the lead up to the elections, there is an increasingly unpleasant sentiment surrounding the conduct of the 2016 race. The presidential debates revealed extensive dramatization as well as personal attacks. In an advertisement for the first debate released by CNN, intense music and heightened dramatics made the debate between two candidates seem like an MMA fight. The debates, although with the intention of being an opportunity where the candidates can prove their competency, became a forum for personal attacks. After the 2005 tapes of Donald Trump’s conversation with Billy Bush describing sexual assault were released, the issue was undoubtedly brought into the second debate. Trump went on the offensive, bringing together several women who claim that they were sexually assaulted by Hillary Clinton’s husband and former president Bill Clinton. Trump and the conservative media went further, asserting that Clinton had laughed at a rape victim, in reference to a case she took on in 1975 when she defended a 41-year-old factory worker accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. The attacks became more personal as Trump accused Clinton of being an ‘unbelievably mean, nasty enabler [of her husband’s affairs]’ – revealing an underlying sexist belief that women are the reason behind their husbands’ indiscretions. There is no doubt that these personal attacks will continue and this reveals how public image and perception have become significant elements in the presidential elections.
Personal attacks are not new to political campaigns. President Obama was frequently attacked by conservatives who questioned his birth certificate, patriotism, as well as suggested ties to radical Islam during his campaign in 2008. However, a lack of bipartisanship has flourished during much of Obama’s time in office and the Trump campaign continues to expose and promote this uncompromising attitude in the American public. The repeated personal attacks have made each presidential debate seem like a reunion episode on the Real Housewives rather than a supposedly civilised debate.
This election season undoubtedly has an entertainment factor. Donald Trump is a television personality on The Apprentice and is no stranger to the limelight, while by contrast, Hillary Clinton is frequently perceived as cold, due to a discomfort with the media. From personal attacks, to lewd comments, or a frank lack of knowledge, the presidential race continues to resemble an absurd reality television show that no one can stop watching. The presidential elections have been both revelatory and entertaining. Regardless of who wins on 8 November, they are sure to face the great civil unrest that has intensified during this campaign, and that is a reality show that no one can turn away from.