Trumpism as Brand Commodification

By Sergei A. Samoilenko

This blog post was inspired by a co-authored text with Andrey Miroshnichenko and his book “Human as Media. The Emancipation of Authorship”.

Under the free market economy, character assassination in the form of scandalous news, rumors, or defamatory articles has intrinsic commodity value. Clickbait materials containing character attacks prove especially lucrative in the context of “culture war” between conservatives and progressives in emotion-driven politics. Since the 2016 U.S. primaries, critical content related to Donald Trump has become a high commodity on the media market and has contributed to an economic revival of many traditional media outlets.

The development of a political brand always follows the commercial logic of media market. Some individual brands resemble seasonal products that increase in value under favorable conditions or due to high public demand on the political market. It means that public interest in some personalities is constantly high and thus can be monetized by various media retailers through positive or negative coverage.

Unsurprisingly, negativity is quite profitable  when Americans are polarized and uncompromising toward their ideological opponents. Negative news is what people like to share with friends and circulate within their online networks. For instance, negative news about a prominent politician can appear in the form of critical watchdog journalism intended to build suspense and draw a new readership to sensational headlines. The value and resonance of a strong individual brand assures its potential liquidity. That basically means that it can be bought and sold at stable prices by different media merchants. Similarly, it can be easily converted into cash, new traffic or refinanced and rebranded when facing new political realities.

In 2017, the media market witnessed a so-called Trump bump, or an economic upturn attributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Ironically, the win of the Republican populist led to the revival of the media market and an instant subscription growth. The year of 2016 became the most profitable year in CNN’s history, enjoying a more than 50 percent increase in its average daytime audience.

The talk shows highly critical of Trump were also ahead in the ratings. For instance, “Saturday Night Live” with Alec Baldwin increased its viewership by 44 percent during the 2016-2017 season. The New Yorker also experienced a tremendous growth in monthly subscriptions and achieved its largest circulation ever at more than a million readers. And finally, the New York Times showed added almost a million new subscribers during the first year of Trump’s presidency.

Certainly, much of this is due to Trump’s restless agitation on social media. Being very predictable in his Twitter rants, the American president constantly generates news leads offering new opportunities for his critics. The most lucrative content in the era of Trumpism is the “fake news” frame and materials related to Trump’s ties to Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. These topics have proven to be beneficial for all parties involved.

Facing the surge in subscription, traditional media seized the moment to denounce social media platforms spreading fake news and promoted their role as the fourth estate saving democracy in the era of Trumpism. Conveniently, a recent bill intended to regulate online political advertising will not only keep Google and Facebook more accountable, but also less aggressive on the advertising market. On the other hand, the fake news allegations indirectly promote the effectiveness of social networking sites by making the public believe that 120 Facebook pages could change the opinions of 146 million Americans.

Likewise, #Russiagate materials equally suit the interests of both ideological camps in America.  The liberal public supports the crusade against fake news as they believe in their contribution to Trump’s win. The “Russian meddling” content serves as a coping mechanism for cognitive dissonance experienced by many progressive voters as it offers most plausible explanation of Trump’s win. The conservative audience, on the other hand, see constant attacks on President Trump with delight as it affirms their long-term beliefs in the conspiracy of the liberal media elite against the legitimate president.

Finally, the materials about almighty Russians produce is very helpful to the Russian state domestically as they help implement the internal policies and strengthen the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin before to the 2018 Russian presidential election. Moreover, Russian imperial consciousness is constantly flattered by the U.S. media attributing Trump’s win to the Russian state.

Internationally, the Russian state has never been appeared so powerful since the end of the Cold War thanks to the unprecedented amount of free coverage in the Western media. Most importantly, the stories about the omnipotent Russian propaganda help Russian information agencies assure their sponsors of their efficiency and ask for more funding. For example, despite harsh criticism from the West, Russian state broadcaster RT has recently expanded and launched a French-language channel and RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, was ranked the fifty-second on Forbes’s list of the world’s most powerful women.

In the era of Trumpism, an adage “bad news travels fast” has become a new marketing philosophy. With so many invested stakeholders, the commodification of Trump appears to be a bonanza bringing profit for years to come. This means that character assassination in the media will remain a stable currency.