American politics has been likened to a circus and a blood sport; but this year it has also become a reality TV show, and that show’s most colourful and confrontational contestant is about to take to the air for another episode.
“Donald Trump is the summer’s biggest TV hit, and ratings gold,” the Los Angeles Times proclaimed in a headline earlier this month.
Trump will be the centre of attention on the worldwide broadcast of the second Republican Party presidential debate on CNN today. In fact there will be two debates: There are so many Republicans running that they’re being split into two sessions, based on their standing in the polls.
Coming over a year ahead of the general election, presidential debates may seem like dull duty for those not obsessed with American politics. But Trump, the boisterous New York billionaire and astonishingly unconventional candidate, has elevated them to must-see TV.
His wispy gold and silver helmet of hair, his supreme self-confidence and his alternately entertaining and insulting off-the-cuff style have enthralled millions of Americans.
Trump called one of his competitors, senator Rand Paul, “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain”. Of the one female candidate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, he said “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Former Florida governor and fellow candidate Jeb Bush said Trump “is trying to insult his way to the presidency”.
Or course, Trump was famous long before his bid for the White House. Known most recently to the millions of viewers of reality show, ‘The Apprentice’, he earned his fame as head of a multi-national business empire that bears his name. Ironically, even native English speakers can overlook just how great a name it is: ‘trump’ literally means to ‘outperform’.
America has had media-savvy candidates for high office before; Ronald Reagan began his career in the movies after all. It has also had candidates rich enough to organise and finance their own campaigns without depending on donors or parties; it has had plain-speaking populists from outside the political establishment; there’s no forgetting Republican Sarah Palin, who ran alongside John McCain in 2008.
But now, for the first time, the US has one candidate with all those assets: enough media-savvy, money and man-on-the-street appeal, to break all the rules and — perhaps — win.
As American voters have grown more frustrated with their elected representatives, they’ve turned to a man who has never held elected office. Whether or not he can be elected president, we know for certain he’s great TV.
(Jonathan Mann is anchor, CNN International. The views expressed are personal)