He Rode It Until It Killed Him: How Entertainment Drove The Stake Through Donald Trump

Donald Trump
Donald Trump speaking in Erie, Pennsylvania, August 12. Jeff Swensen/Getty

When the obituary for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign is written, "entertainment" will be listed as the cause of death. While providing entertainment is the one consistent strategy he's effectively employed, it ultimately will be the culprit of his demise.

Instead of captivating people, Trump's act consists of shallow reactions leading to emotionally-charged conflict. Prior to installing his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, he would regularly drop words that elicited a response of "WTF" ("What the fuck?") resulting in anger, outrage or disgust.

His comments are rarely by accident—they are nearly always calculated and rolled out either casually or with brutal intensity. Whether it was inviting foreign countries to hack into U.S. email servers or criticizing parents who lost their son while serving in the U.S. armed forces, Trump yielded to his shallow instincts for media napalm. He weaved conspiracy because of the viral mysterious meme nature it affords, which has been an element of entertainment and gossip mediums dating back to the Bible, his second favorite book.

Trump's distribution strategy involves ambiguity because it has the widest reach potential, as each audience cluster can project on his statement their own relevance. His belief that ubiquity translates to likability—except when you extend past the plank of rules of presidential persuasion.

Despite persistent questions over Trump's competency as a businessman—a Bloomberg poll revealed that 61 percent of likely voters are less impressed with his business acuity today than at the start of his campaign — there's no debate over his marketing chops. He's been a consistent story-of-the-day genius. He's learned that symptomologies of crazy sells and delivered it before Conway either organically as some armchair psychotherapists not constrained by the rules or professional ethics suggest, or further manufactured from his years of watching which over the top cuts make the best ratings.

Trump reflexively knows the maxim that conflict is the core of drama. That's why he's excelled at breaking records at making daily headlines. How can you blame the media? For nearly a year, Donald J. Trump fed the beast. While many journalists are inspired to pen Pulitzer-winning pieces, that standard many times requires the elements of classic storytelling. Trump still serves his journalists fresh sizzling story meat near daily.

When you fly too close to the sun like Icarus, eventually you're going to get cauterized. For Trump, his third-degree burns came when he hit at the suffering Khan family. The entertaining shock value routine became too much. It was a 48 Hours episode in which the battered protagonist was revealed validated as the soulless antagonist because of his void of empathy and unAmerican spirit.

It might have been chemically-induced or the result of cerebral pressure from his consortium of self-serving enablers, but Trump went into shutdown mode. He changed and abandoned entertainment.

After 100 hours of bunkering from controversy, either his lack of self-control or an act of compulsion—like a reality star's homeostasis—or both, he reverted to his walk on the crazy side entertainer that he is. For all the arresting, over-the-top, assaulting comments he's made in his campaign, calling for the assassination of Hillary Clinton took Trump's act a step below Netflix's Making A Murderer level category. His messaging, delivered through an attempt at casual humor, put the final nail in Trump's candidacy for president coffin with independents and moderates who will control the election. His predictable new outbursts, like calling Obama the creator of ISIS, are minor aftershocks that reinforce the decision by swing voters and independents to turn the channel.

Trump recently attempted to reset his campaign hemorrhage by hiring campaign manager Conway and terminating Russia-linked Paul Manafort. Conway's diplomatic svengali vernacular with Trump convinced him that it's best to avoid further "awkward" statements. She's seduced him to stick to his rallies, but only with teleprompters sliding phrases in short monosyllables luxuriously comfortable for Trump. While he is sticking to message at rallies where he'd normally self-immolate, they are not covered by the media because they are sane sleep fests. He's stuck in a media double bind.

Conway is trying to create a kinder, gentler, nicer Trump. Trump's internalized this as the entertainment of nice. While he's been largely acting like he's on the cast of TV's Friends, for Trump, it must feel like he's on Survivor. We have gone from Godzilla meets King Kong to Tom Hanks meets Bradley Cooper, with only slivers of classic Trump remaining.

This nice, sweet Donald Trump is crafted to soften his appeal to the important "security moms" in swing states. Old Trump said things like all 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S illegally "have to go." New Trump tells Bill O'Reilly he likes Obama's policy, but we just need to "get rid of the bad ones." Nice Trump even took a trip to Louisiana to touch those affected by the devastation.

Ironically, Conway previously attacked Trump while working under Cruz, stating he "actually built a lot of his business on the backs of the little guy," talked about the "victims of Trump University, victims of Trump in Atlantic City," and accused the Trump campaign of "being too cozy with the establishment," among more critiques. After taking the reigns, she claimed he doesn't insult anyone anymore. But, mere hours later, Trump hurled an attack against Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski, calling her "off the wall, a neurotic and not very bright mess"—a misogynist classic alongside "fat pig," "dog," and "slob" he's used to describe women in the past. Nice has its limits.

What's clear is there is no stopping the conflict-is-entertainment Donald Trump after X amount of hours. No expert knows how many hours, but whether it's ten or 200, the reflex instincts to fire missiles of controversy, the core of reality TV entertainment, which overcomes his manager's message and becomes the media focus. For independents, swing voters, and disgruntled Republicans intrigued about the regretful, new self-controlled, but far less entertaining presidential Trump, it seems that without stiffing his smartphone bill, it's just not going to happen.

The problem is that Trump is not a Stanislavski trained actor, and he can't stay in the nice character long. On some level, he must also believe nice will not arrest enough attention to stay relevant and his entertainer instincts get the better of him. After all, who wants to watch a more likable bore fest.

For Trump, the show, and the conflict inevitably must go on. His most recent Eddie Haskell behavior was to revive him from the dead, but every time the casket tries to open, it inevitably slams shut.

On November 9, it will be a sad, dark day for many journalists, but a bright day for those of them who are patriots. He rode entertainment until it finally killed him. At least Barnum would be proud.

Eric Schiffer is an international expert in reputation, brand and political strategy in his roles as chairman and CEO of The Patriarch Organization and ReputationManagementConsultants.com.