IF I WERE TO pick out a word to define the era we’re living in, ‘authenticity’ would be one of the first I would reach for. I hear it bandied about everywhere across business, politics and culture to the extent that it’s overused and is losing meaning.
You can probably trace our modern take on authenticity back to 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee invented the ‘World Wide Web.’ That was the year I entered broadcasting which, at the time, was an industry dominated by a few local and national brands and distinct from the print media. Now we’re all part of one digital media continuum which is increasingly hosted on a handful of global platforms. You can just as easily access local news in Japan as you can from your own neighborhood with little more than a couple of taps on your phone.
With convenience comes choice and the the result is that we are now bombarded by content coming at us from producers large and small. The way we cope is by falling back on our instincts. Which stories connect with us most? Which do we trust?
The media revolution didn’t just create new platforms, it created new ways of working. When I started out in radio, we used reel-to-reel tape recorders. I was allowed 15 minutes’ worth of tape to record a piece and would edit by literally splicing it with a razor blade and sticking the pieces back together in the order I wanted them in. It was a newsroom rule not to walk around without shoes in case you stood on a blade. The loss of the odd finger tip was accepted as an occupational hazard. When digital recording equipment arrived, I could record as much as I liked and edit on a screen, barefooted if I wanted to.
Every part of the media was turned upside down in the same way, For TV, it meant round-the-clock filming became manageable and affordable. Viewers couldn’t get enough of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ shows and the first that I clocked was ‘The Real World’ on MTV where a group of strangers were thrown together in a fabulous apartment and forced to live together. It was essentially voyeurism and I felt a bit dirty watching it but there was something compelling about seeing relationships form and collapse. More ‘reality shows’ followed and they now dominate a schedule that was originally built on back-to-back music videos.
The news networks didn’t escape. The the OJ Simpson car chase in 1994 and follow-up trial was, arguably, reality TV but was even more compelling because you knew it wasn’t contrived. Schedules were cleared for rolling coverage, drawing record audiences. We got to know the characters involved as we would parts in a play. Simpson’s defence attorney, Robert Kardashian, made his name and his daughters Kim, Kourtney and Kloe went on to star in a hugely success reality series of their own.
The biggest reality star of them all was also born out of this era with the tabloids following every twist and turn of his acrimonious divorce. Donald and Ivana Trump were regular fixtures on the front pages and he later built on that profile by starring in the Apprentice TV show.
Reality TV is all about the underdog who comes from nowhere to overtake the front runner. Trump was steeped in the narrative and used it with devastating effect in his campaign for president. I wrote to it in my book:
What’s extraordinary is how Trump managed to relate to people he appeared to have nothing in common with. Take the white, rural, disenfranchised worker that commentators often pointed to as his typical supporter. What did they have in common with a billionaire property magnate and TV star from Manhattan? I’ll let him explain. Here’s an extract from the first speech of his campaign, delivered in the glittering Trump Tower in June 2015, as he announced his run for president:
‘I started off in a small office with my father in Brooklyn and Queens, and my father said, and I love my father – I learned so much, he was a great negotiator. I learned so much just sitting at his feet playing with blocks listening to him negotiate with subcontractors. But I learned a lot. But he used to say, “Donald, don’t go into Manhattan. That’s the big leagues. We don’t know anything about that. Don’t do it.”
I said, “I gotta go into Manhattan. I gotta build those big buildings. I gotta do it, Dad. I’ve gotta do it.” And after four or five years in Brooklyn, I ventured into Manhattan and did a lot of great deals, the Grand Hyatt Hotel. I was responsible for the convention center on the west side. I did a lot of great deals, and I did them early and young, and now I’m building all over the world, and I love what I’m doing.’
For that disenfranchised worker, struggling to find work, Trump sounded like a winner and someone they could identify with because they wanted to live the same American dream. He was appealing to their hopes and showing how anything’s possible. Manhattan is where he made it, not where he was from – that was Queens.
Then he explained how he was going to help them follow in his path.
‘I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. I tell you that. I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places. I’ll bring back our jobs, and I’ll bring back our money.’
That’s exactly what they wanted to hear and Trump repeated the jobs mantra throughout his campaign with great success. He argued he was uniquely qualified, from his years in business, to renegotiate the ‘disastrous’ trade deals that had bled the economy dry.
By casting himself as an underdog, Trump not only made himself more relatable but it also allowed him to distance himself from the ‘ruling elites’ who, according to his narrative, had trashed the country. I think he genuinely believed it too because it would explain his constant self-validation. ‘Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy.’ (ABC, March 2011). ‘Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it!’ (Twitter, May 2013). ‘I went to the Wharton School of Finance; I’m, like, a really smart person’ (Phoenix rally, July 2015).
Trump wasn’t the first politician to use the underdog plotline but he was the most effective because of his experience in reality TV which is built on the narrative. It’s the undiscovered talent that finally breaks through; David vs Goliath; the one against the many. Trump’s take was the political outsider taking on the ruling elite, as illustrated by the script from his last TV ad of his campaign:
‘Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. The political establishment, that is trying to stop us, is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration, and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry. The political establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories and our jobs as they flee to Mexico, China, and other countries all around the world. It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities. The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you, the American people. I’m doing this for the people and for the movement and we will take back this country for you and we will make America great again.’
It was an apocalyptic vision. He portrayed himself as the only person that could save the country from its perilous state. All he needed was your support. It’s the language of populist revolt and he rode it all the way to the White House. Every underdog needs a nemesis and Trump’s ‘global power structure’ is particularly abstract but it allowed him to roll anyone and anything that got in his way in to one all-encompassing enemy. Politicians, bankers, international institutions, even his own party leadership were fair game, as were the news media whose very reason for being is to speak truth unto power. ‘If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%,’ Trump tweeted in August 2016.
It was Hillary Clinton who bore the brunt of the attacks as his main opponent. She epitomised the ruling class for him, out to serve nothing but her own self-interest. Her biggest vulnerability was the ‘character issue’ that kept showing up in the polls and that’s where Trump went in for the kill.
When you compete on character, you compete on trust. Who’s telling the truth here? Trump felt more authentic to his base because he was telling their truth. They could relate to his story and the way he told it. He even used expletives at rallies, unheard of during presidential campaigns, but it made him even more relateable as a rebel.
Bonnie Greer, the American-British playwright and fierce critic of Donald Trump’s presidency, has studied his appearances and concedes that, ‘people think that he’s authentic so they are able to live through him.’
Most people are afraid of being themselves though, according to Greer, and that limits their potential. ‘I’d say 80 of people are frightened by authenticity… Where you become successful I think is how much you can be authentic to yourself. You have to be authentic to yourself. You can’t make original content, you can’t be original you can’t be any of those things unless you are authentic and I think people are looking for originality because there’s so much cookie-cutter stuff being thrown out.’
I discuss the challenges of being yourself with Bonnie in a podcast where she describes the hurdles and fears she’s had to overcome to get to where she is.
To be successful, you have to offer something original and that comes from being yourself.