Broadcast Essay: Trumpism and Television

Television facilitates a politics of feeling from Nixon to trump

Meadows headshot
Laura Meadows

“Trumpism” is, among other things, a feeling, an emotion, a worldview, rather than a coherent set of policy positions, and it has been percolating through our politics since the 1960s. While it obviously was not labeled Trumpism six decades ago, the Republican Party has been cultivating the feelings that constitute it for at least that long. Various reasons have been offered for its rise, but what is often overlooked is the consequential role television has played in shaping this aspect of the conservative movement. From Ronald Reagan’s speech supporting Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign to the launching of Fox News in 1996 to Donald Trump’s $3 billion worth of free coverage from the broadcast and cable channels in 2016, television has been central to conservative organizing and identifying for generations. This essay will explore this joint evolution of conservatism and television from the 1960s to our modern day to show the myriad ways television facilitates a politics of feeling.

            Although television adoption increased in the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that TV became an important cause of our social and political opinions (Robinson, 1977). During this time, television’s political coverage began to concentrate its focus on the presidency, specifically the personality of the occupant of the Oval Office, and to filter events through a more personal lens, as seen in Goldwater’s unsuccessful run for the presidency. Throughout the campaign, the candidate steadfastly refused to pander to the dictates of television. As Goldwater told one of his aids, “This is going to be a campaign of principles, not of personalities. I don’t want that kind of Madison Avenue stuff, and if you try it, I will kick your ass out of this office” (Perlstein, 2001, 316). This approach to the ascendant medium was countered by Reagan who delivered a 30-minute televised speech, “A Time for Choosing,” supporting Goldwater’s campaign, to rave reviews. In its aftermath, local communities began raising money to re-air the speech over and over. For conservatives throughout the country, his affable style combined with a stringent critique of all those who ignored, judged, or disrespected those on the right, resonated with viewers and effectively launched Reagan on his political career.

            Goldwater ignored television to his detriment. Richard Nixon did not. Scarred by his experience on camera in the 1960 presidential debate, Nixon vowed to master the medium to control the 1968 election, as well as his presidency, and to remake his own image in light of television’s audiences. “We are going to build this whole campaign around television. You fellows just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it” (Perlstein, 2008, 235). He appeared on the Jack Parr program and Laugh-In. He organized a series of town hall style talks where he spoke to individual communities about their specific needs. He meticulously managed each moment of televised stagecraft. Consequently, he controlled the presentation of his personality and grievances all the way to the White House.

            Television propelled Nixon to the presidency. It also lifted voices to the national level that had previously been contained by the party. During the 1968 election, for instance, George Wallace, former governor of Alabama and a rabid segregationist, ran “The Wallace Story,” essentially a thirty-minute political ad. Each time it ran, donations poured into his acerbic campaign. His words on the program resonated with audiences that had previously felt ignored and judged, and he became a precursor of conservative candidates, such as Reagan, who likewise would lead with emotions and feelings and an aggrieved worldview.

            “By 1993, Reagan’s true successor had revealed itself. It was not a single political figure. It was the conservative institutional and media superstructure that had taken on gigantic dimensions during twelve years of Republican presidents” (Continetti, 2022, 309). This superstructure included Crossfire, The McLaughlin Group, Inside Washington, and The Capital Gang, all of which were possible because of the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which had previously required broadcast stations to air a balance of political views that reflected different perspectives. In this climate, stations were now permitted to air politically controversial viewpoints without balance. Coupled with television’s innate tendency to lean into emotion and volume, this fundamental shift created an environment in which increasingly radical rhetoric carried the day. And, before Fox News launched in 1996, no show presented this rhetoric more consistently than Pat Buchanan’s Crossfire. Launched on CNN in 1982, Buchanan loudly called for a border wall and threatened to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants. Such stances were unheard of in the 1980s and 1990s.

            They became increasingly common as Trump ratcheted up his political ambitions, largely on television. Beginning in the spring of 2011, Fox and Friends hosted a weekly segment, “Monday Mornings with Trump,” that acted as a launching pad for the telegenic and media savvy Trump to, among other things, question Barack Obama’s citizenship, to rage against undocumented immigrants, and to propose a border wall to be paid for by a foreign country. From this perch, the New York real estate developer gained political stature, relevance, and, vitally, followers. Voters on the right resonated with his rhetoric, seemingly the more extreme the better, creating a symbiotic relationship between the media and the politician. As mentioned above, Trump garnered $3 billion in earned media from the broadcast and cable networks, effectively enabling his historic political rise.

            The consequences of his brand of politics remain open for debate. However, it does seem certain that a politics waged through our television screens creates particular dynamics. As anyone who has watched television knows, good TV is an emotive experience. In 1964, Goldwater explicitly refused to emote for the cameras and he lost. Since then, conservative politicians, from Nixon to Reagan to Trump, have learned that lesson and have leaned into the medium’s dispositions. Emotions and feelings, symbols and pugnacity. Our politics have certainly noticed the television screen.

About the author: Laura Meadows is a writer and teacher focused on the intersection of media, politics, and social movements, especially in the context of the American South.

Featured image: President Richard Nixon during an Interview with John Chancellor, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith and Nancy Dickerson for the Television Special Program “A Conversation with the President,” NAID: 7268144, Nixon White House Photographs, White House Photo Office Collection, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.


Continetti, M. (2022). The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. Basic Books.

Corn, D. (2002). American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy. Twelve Books.

Grossman, M. & Hopkins, D. A. (2021). “Placing Media in Conservative Culture.” In Conservative Political Communication: How Right-Wing Media and Messaging (Re)Made American Politics. Routledge.

Hemmer, N. (2022). Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Basic Books

Howison, J. D. (2013). The 1980 Presidential Election: Ronald Reagan and the Shaping of the American Conservative Movement. Routledge.

Perlstein, R. (2001). Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Nation Books.

Perlstein, R. (2008). Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Scribner.

Robinson, M. J. (1977). “Television and American Politics: 1956-1976.” The Public Interest, 48, 3 – 39.

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