Donald Trump’s four years in office were arguably the most eventful in US history, making it easy to forget that the former US president began as nothing more than a fringe candidate, preaching an extremist ideology that appealed to a small, yet influential minority. Trump’s larger than life personality proved too much for the media to ignore, and soon his face was plastered all over TV and social media.
From the moment he entered the republican candidate race to his time as president, Trump seemed to absorb the media’s attention, like a black hole sucking in light. His racist, sexist, and xenophobic ideologies always found a home on mainstream media, despite the incalculable damage it caused to democracy.
Although Trump may be the poster boy for right-wing fringe candidates, he certainly isn’t the only example of the media turning their attention toward a divisive and controversial political personality. Laurence Fox, a UK actor turned political activist and staunch critic of ‘woke’ culture and political correctness, received significant media coverage during his failed London Mayoral bid.
Like Trump, Fox possesses a captivating personality that thrives under the spotlight. Fox and Trump are just two examples of a growing trend. All over the western world, controversial politicians are holding their nation’s media attention.
In 2021, fringe candidates, particularly those on the right, are receiving unprecedented and disproportional media attention. This article will investigate why this is happening and its consequences.
The evolution of the media and their relationship with the Right
Over the last few decades, the role of the media has experienced a dramatic transformation. No longer concerned with reporting an accurate narrative, mainstream media is concerned with directing the narrative. The tabloid press has taken over as the dominant form of media and it places the need for commercial success above journalistic credibility. The bestselling newspapers in the UK are The Sun and The Daily Mail—tabloid papers specialising in sensationalism. Right-wing movements and candidates exemplify many characteristics desired by the tabloid press: they make inflammatory comments, break social taboos, and arouse emotions amongst supporters and opposition. And, like the tabloid press, right-wing candidates have little time for facts, with many of their claims rooted in little to no evidence.
"Fringe candidates no longer rely on major media corporations...All they need is a Twitter account."
Social media has risen to become a major player within the media landscape, offering anyone a convenient platform to express their opinions for potentially millions of people to see at the click of a button. Fringe candidates no longer rely on major media corporations to get their opinions heard. All they need is a Twitter account and the ability to express themselves in 280 characters or less. At his peak, Trump had instant access to 150 million people. Laurence Fox boasts a Twitter following of more than 300,000, an impressive audience for someone who remains on the fringes of politics.
Just like with tabloid media, the right also thrives on social media. In 2020, a Facebook executive—when asked why conservatives drive such high interactions— said ‘Right-Wing populism is always more engaging’ and that its content speaks to ‘an incredibly strong, primitive emotion.’ Populism is a political strategy that frames politics as a battle between the ‘ordinary people’ and a nefarious elite. During the 2020 presidential campaign, posts with the most engagement were overwhelmingly right-wing, with left-wing posts barely making the top 25. These posts often came from ‘fringe’ figures like Franklin Graham and Dan Bongino.
There’s an undeniable natural alliance between new media and the right-wing, with fringe candidates embodying everything that the present-day media values. It’s a symbiotic relationship with no end in sight.
Does more media mean more support?
There have certainly been cases where media coverage has benefitted a right-wing fringe campaign. Trump was initially considered a long shot with no realistic chance at winning the Republican nomination—never mind the presidency. But his animated personality and refusal to partake in the unwritten rules of politics made him a fascinating watch. He was undeniably box-office TV and the media covered him, whether supportive or critical. Then there’s Laurence Fox, whose mayoral campaign was a complete failure in every regard. It’s difficult to argue the media attention benefitted him and his campaign.
It would be unfounded to claim media attention benefits all right-wing fringe campaigns and there’s no room for sweeping generalisations in politics. Candidates must instead be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
However, there are some obvious prerequisites needed to maximise the benefit of media coverage.
Appeal as a candidate
Media attention didn’t help Fox because he lacked a solid foundation as an appealing political alternative. His opinions and views were too extreme for most of the British public at the time—his racially-motivated views and focus on culture wars failed to tap into the political dissatisfaction of the British public. The political zeitgeist* no longer desired the divisive perspectives that were so successful during the Brexit campaign, for example.
In contrast, Trump’s ideology spoke to a significant and influential minority, and he tapped into a burgeoning dissatisfaction with the current American way of life. Trump’s support was very much a retaliation to the previous presidency of Obama. In this case, the media attention amplified Trump’s already influential following and carried him all the way to the White House.
*zeitgeist = the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.
The media role within the system
The significance of a media presence within a political system varies from country to country. US politics is a media circus, a popularity contest where politics takes a backseat to personality. Trump and his shocking personality benefitted from hundreds of TV appearances and having his face plastered on every media form during his election campaign. Although the UK is edging closer to the American style of political drama, the media's influence is not as far-reaching. Politics doesn't dominate the many forms of UK media and elections at every level fail to command the same type of public interest seen in the States. Laurence Fox received some media attention, although most came from his own Twitter, it wasn't comparable to Trump's exposure via the front page of the New York Times or his political debates watched by tens of millions.
So why does the media continue to cover campaigns knowing it could potentially assist the candidate?
In theory, the media is supposed to remain impartial, reporting on events with complete factual accuracy and fairly covering all facets of political campaigns. As mayoral and Presidential candidates, Fox and Trump were entitled to some form of media coverage.
This impartiality, of course, isn’t the case, and most major news publications have carved out identities that sit them firmly on the political spectrum. Fox News is notoriously right-wing and were avid supporters of Trump, whilst the New York Times is liberal in their position and consequently reported negatively on the former President. These political positions contribute to the increasing media focus on fringe right-wing candidates. Left-wing publications commit resources to attacking the right, and the right respond by defending their desired candidate. As a far-right candidate, Fox was painted as a pantomime villain by liberal publications like the Guardian.
Then there’s the prioritisation of profit and commercial success above all else. Media is heavily focused on increasing viewership, readership, and profit. Most forms of media do not have the luxury of taking a moral stance that could impact their success. Big personalities like Trump and Fox bring with them a significant audience—something the media cannot pass up.
For more articles and resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Media section.
Edited by Evie Townend