How media formats shaped Trump's message

The not-so-brief history of a pied piper in the communication era.

10 minutes to read
Federico Tosi


In this article, we will assess candidate Trump’s appearances in rallies, talk shows and a presidential debate to determine whether or not the media format generates a change in his message. Just like the pied piper had to play a nice tune to lead the rats, a presidential candidate has to play his or her catchy tune to lead the voters.

Formats, message, data and Trump's message

On September 27, 2016 Americans—and the rest of the world—watched the first debate between the US presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It lasted for around one and a half hours; however, candidates do not always have this large amount of time to choose their words carefully, to handle their issues, or to take back something they regret having said. In today’s world, where multiple media, resources and ideologies influence the public opinion (Kellner, 2014), it is quite clear that we see a candidate’s discourse change depending on the source (i.e., the program or the media) we focus on.

In this article, we will analyze the way in which media shapes Donald Trump’s message and discourse, especially highlighting the importance of the length of the appearances, as they differ depending on the particular message the candidate is promoting.

Drawing parallels to related literature, we will offer a generalization of the peculiarities of Trump’s discourse observable in the rally on May 25 in Anaheim, California; the September 15th episode of the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon; and the presidential debate on September 27. Speaking time, referential audience and presence of an “opponent” will be our analytical criteria.

Trump's rally performance in Anaheim, California

Starting with the rally, the basic idea is extremely clear: conquer the votes of the people who have lost something due to the country's current status. With this mindset, Trump's campaign targeted those who lost their money because of the 2008-2013 Great Recession, those who lost their jobs because of the increasing number of illegal immigrants, and those who lost their safety because of the threat of the terrorism. In other words, carrying on a long-standing American tradition of populism (Newsweek, 2015), Donald Trump is pursuing a policy of criticism against the past government and the present conditions, instead of offering an authentic new perspective for the future. 

Having a clear idea about the people who will attend his rallies, Trump continues to gain leverage with anger, hopelessness, and distress, all the while making promises he will never be able to keep.

During his rallies, he reflects the vox populi, which is defined as “the anti-intellectual voice of everyday rationality” (Blommaert, 2005). Exhibiting a next-door-neighbor-like character, he often speaks to the “average American”, the ordinary, non-wealthy, low-educated white guy who is not completely sure about the accuracy of the given information, but is searching for an easy solution to complex issues (The Atlantic, 2016).

Knowing this fact and having a clear idea about the people who will attend his rallies, Trump continues to gain leverage with anger, hopelessness, and distress, all the while making promises he will never be able to keep and focusing on issues aimed at sweetening the deal. His main points are the improvement of the economic situation, the cut in taxes, the reinforcement of the military, a greater border control, the development of a new welfare state and a restructuring of the educational system (The Telegraph, 2016). In his four words: Make America Great Again.

The absence of an opponent gives the Republican candidate the exemption of having to clarify how his electoral programme will actually work in practice. The opportunity to talk alone for a long time, without an adversarial, allows him to go from one issue to another, without “touching” the technical matters, on which Trump is seemingly unprepared.

People have a short memory, but this is not the first time in the last few years that a country has faced a homo novus of the political spectrum who really cares about “branding” himself and presenting the image of a normal person “forced” to pursue a political career only for the sake of the people (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). The last example of this was Silvio Berlusconi, the man who governed Italy for more than fifteen years (The Guardian, 2016). 

An unbridled pragmatism, the ability to show themselves as non-politicians, and the continuing reference to their great skills as businessmen, made both Berlusconi and Trump controversial candidates. However, the strategy of communicating one’s own identity worked in normal rallies twenty years ago, it works today, and it will still work in the future.

Trump's talk show performance

A candidate's attendance on a talk show can usually be classified as a way of spreading propaganda for his or her campaign. This type of communication can be analyzed as (1) “face-to face interaction”: an interaction in which the participants are immediately presented to one another and share a common spatial-temporal framework (Thompson, 2005). In other words, the interaction takes place in a context of co-presence. Simultaneously, the discussion between host and guest is (2) "mediated communication". The interviewer or talk show host is the addressee, but the candidate in first instance, tries to convince the super-addressee: the viewer at home (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012).



The NBC talk show, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, is a well-known programme with a young and considerable audience. Donald Trump is very comfortable in this environment; as a multimillionaire celebrity, TV producer and businessman, he knows how to cope with this kind of media. The interview from the episode can be seen on YouTube, in a series of short (1:30 to five-minute) videos, with millions of views each. The length of the videos is crucial because it makes Trump’s appearance shocking and dynamic, which in turn makes it much easier for the viewers to follow and understand a solid strong message without the “problem” of the details of the message itself. Additionally, this type of format helps spread the message on social media networks.

Trump fits the format and uses it for his benefit.

In these kinds of shows, relatable and entertaining occurrences—like the host Jimmy Fallon messing up Trump’s hair— can be observed. This was a moment that went viral almost immediately. These, however, are not occurrences of spontaneity as it may seem to be, but of a detailed strategy, as John Thompson (2005) explains:

“In this new world of mediated visibility, the making visible of actions and events is not just the outcome of leakage in systems of communication and information flow that are increasingly difficult to control; it is also an explicit strategy of individuals who know very well that mediated visibility can be a weapon in the struggles they wage in their day-to-day lives.”

It is quite striking that in some of the longer videos we can actually see how Trump deviates from the question provided by the host, resulting in a long answer that is not connected to the question (Law Newz, 2016). This can be seen, for example, in a moment in which Jimmy Fallon asks, “What do you think you are doing that they are not doing?”. A simple question that should procure a simple answer, but instead, Trump gives an answer that lasts more than a minute, in which he does not even respond directly to the query. This led the host to literally say, “What the hell, […] what question did I ask?”. Hence, in these situations, we see Trump’s lack of ideas and preparation for the presidency. The talk show episode, on the other hand, was a great success, due to its comedic tone and Trump’s affinity to this kind of entertainment. Trump fits the format and uses the format for his benefit. After that episode, his “civilian image” was reinforced and his message was spread exactly among the social layer he wanted to convince: the young average voters.

Trump's debate performance

The final case for review is the first debate between the candidates. This kind of media format is different from a “normal” show because a presidential debate is structured in a very different way. It is not so much about entertainment, but about positioning oneself as "presidential"; one must show he is competent and knowledgeable about the procedures of being president. It is a global event, and the audience is a mixed one (Blommaert, 2005), composed of black and white people, low and highly-educated people, young and old, people with a great knowledge of the topics discussed and completely uninformed people, and everyone in between. In addition, the debate lasted more or less as long as a normal rally (one and a half hours). However, here we find the fundamental difference between communicative events: in the debate, Trump had to face Hillary Clinton, a strong and self-confident opponent. Not to mention, she is a politician that has years of experience with this format.

The combination of these elements had a “dramatic” effect on Donald Trump’s behavior. Deprived of the security of his own crowd, and pressed by the specific topics presented by an expert and well-prepared journalist, Lester Holt, Trump deflected many questions. He also became defensive about a lot of issues, and he kept interrupting his opponent. Conversely, Clinton argued her thesis calmly, developed her ideas with precision, and let Trump finish almost all his sentences with the full knowledge that he was not prepared enough to conclude a clear analysis of the topics discussed (The Guardian, 2016). Into the bargain, Trump interrupted her 51 times whilst Clinton interrupted Trump 11 times (Time, 2016).

Albeit being a controversial and “pragmatic” man can be extremely useful in the context of a rally, it had a totally negative effect in the debate. It made the Republican candidate an easy and vulnerable prey for the personal attacks from Hillary Clinton, who tried to demonstrate the inadequacy of her opponent for the role of President. The great amount of time at the disposal of the protagonists for their replays, but the strict control of the topics by the moderator, created a situation of total embarrassment for Donald Trump. The normal rules of the format—whose tradition of not focusing on the real aspects of the issues examined—showed that a careful audience doesn’t let itself be dragged by the emphatic enthusiasm of a populist and nationalistic rhetoric (FiveThirtyEight Election Forecast, 2016).

He is not politically correct, and him losing the debate according to the correct standards, paradoxically reinforces his message.

All media, even far-right Fox News, concluded that Clinton won that first debate. However, this evaluation of the debate starts from the traditional view of what a presidential candidate must look like. It judges Trump's performance on rationality, content, policies and realism. According to that standard he lost; but of course Trump did more than that. He communicated emotions and displayed that he was clearly not the "traditional politician". Evidently, he is not part of the establishment. From the point of view of his radical, white working-class base, he dared to say the "uneasy truth". He dared to interrupt Clinton.

Formats and Trump's performances

It is fair to state that the media format directly influences a candidate's performance. It is not the same having a one-minute gap to replay than a longer segment, like we saw in the first debate. Thus, whenever the candidates face a short-answer period, they need to address a stronger and more categorical message. Some candidates' styles better fit the format in which he or she can infuse entertainment value and a black-and-white discourse.

Therefore, the media plays such an important role in the message and discourse of a candidate. The perception of a candidate's performance and his message might differ enormously depending on whether we see him in a one-man rally in front of an enthusiastic crowd, in Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, or in a debate. 

In the first case, we saw how Trump managed to use populism in order to look trustworthy and confident in front of a group of people that share his ideas. In these situations, he used strong and categorical sentences, taking advantage that the crowd in attendance supported those ideas. 

In the second case, his showman skills allowed him to deal with short TV interviews with grace and ease, because his multimillionaire-businessman background has taught him how to do so. We perfectly saw this in the interview with Jimmy Fallon, in which even without giving any relevant information about his future plans as a president, he comes out of the show victorious. 

In the third stage, however, we saw that participating with substantial time in a debate against a better-prepared opponent, was a more difficult format for Trump. In this format, he was expected to behave and talk presidential. According to these standards and the judgement of mass media, he lost the debate. Trump's campaign was built on the idea that he "says it like it is"—he is the voice of the people, not of the political establishment. He is not politically correct, and him losing the debate according to the correct standards, paradoxically reinforces his message.  


Today, the winner is the best communicator. It's the one who reaches people intrinsically, “playing a catchy tune”, and hiding his smudges: the best Pied Piper.



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