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Trump supporters are living in a reality shaped by television, says a Harvard professor

Donald Trump on TV.
Reuters/ Jim Urquhart
Donald Trump speaks the language of television.
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Donald Trump’s enduring popularity has surprised just about everyone. And no wonder, argues Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen. Half the nation consistently fails to understand the other half because the US is a nation divided between those who watch the news and those who read it. The conversations on the two different media are starkly different, she says, making it increasingly difficult for those who read news to understand the perspective of those who watch it, and vice versa.

Those who read news and analysis are largely out of touch with the narratives that shape TV news, and the viewers who watch it. “My hypothesis is that, as of summer 2015, the conversations in TV and radio land were barely visible within text-based journalism,” she wrote in a Washington Post article on the subject.

Trump, Allen says, is a television candidate.

“He was already in the world of television conversation. That’s the genre that he fits in and that’s what he appeals to,” she says. “You have to switch hats from the expectations and standards of a reading context to the expectations and standards of a television-watching context. That’s all you need to know for understanding why he’s appealing.”

Allen believes that Trump’s anti-political correctness rhetoric makes far more sense in the context of TV, where there’s often criticism of elites and professional sectors.

Television also tends to have a greater focus on the potential dangers of crime and terrorism than print media. “TV news spends a lot more time on chasing bad guys and reporting on bad guys than print media does,” says Allen. Indeed, studies have shown that those who watch a large amount of TV are more likely to feel a greater threat from crime, and that the crime shown on TV is more violent and dangerous than real-world crime.

Not only does Trump better fit the narratives that often shape TV news, he also suits the language of television. Allen believes that the linguistic complexity of TV news is several grades below that of print news. And so Trump, whose speeches are at a fourth-grade level, is quite literally speaking the language of television.

Trump knows his supporters are not reading erudite columns on politics, and so he consciously presents himself as a TV candidate, argues Allen. He’s shown disdain for the rhetoric and practice of print media and, when he first launched his campaign, his website had no policy papers on it. “All it had on it were short video statements from Trump,” she says. “He knew he was after a watching audience, not a reading one.”

In general, she says, the divide between watching and reading news is sharp. “People are consuming stuff either in a written or in a TV form and, for the most part, it’s not a matter of going back and forth between them,” she adds.

Allen believes the divide between those who read and watch news is so strong that she would “guess” those who watch news are more likely to be Trump supporters and those who read news are more likely to be Clinton supporters. “That’s roughly the same as saying that people with college degrees are more likely to support Clinton and people without them are more likely to support Trump,” she adds.

To those who find Trump reprehensible, it might seem the only possible explanation for his popularity is that his supporters live in a different reality. Allen’s argument gives credence to this theory. Trump supporters live in a world shaped by television discussions, not print ones. The only way to understand this alternate reality is to start watching more TV.

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