Why We Can't Stop Reading About Trump

Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona, in 2015EXPAND
Donald Trump speaking with the media at a hangar at Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona, in 2015

I have a problem: I can't stop reading about Donald Trump.

As a reporter for a local newspaper, it's part of my job to keep up with the local news. But for the past few months, I've found that hard. I'll try to read an article about homelessness, or Measure M, or the new police commissioner. My mind wanders. It almost feels like I'm smoking a cigarette when what I really want is a hit of crack.

Then I see some tweet about Donald Trump. Did he really just say he "wasn't impressed" with Hillary Clinton's body? Oh and hey, here's a video from like five years ago of Trump saying something vaguely offensive to a Miss Universe winner. At least it's only three minutes ...

Last week I found myself re-reading this Buzzfeed profile of Trump, which led me to an earlier profile of him by the same author. Meanwhile, at the end of the day I'll have a dozen open Safari windows of local stories that I meant to read, but, oh well, maybe tomorrow.

In a sense, this is just a continuation of a long trend of national news trumping local news. People simply care more about who their president is than who their city councilman is, or even their mayor. Still, Trump news takes this to an extreme. It sucks the oxygen out of the media landscape. How am I supposed to concentrate on ins and outs of DWP reform when a major presidential candidate is spinning out of orbit?

I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way. A study by the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that Trump has consistently gotten more coverage than any other presidential candidate, including Clinton.

"Looking at the volume of news coverage, it’s just overwhelmingly about Trump," says Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center (and former deputy publisher of the L.A. Times). "As the news ecosystem gets more and more competitive, and as audience attention becomes more scarce, there is some incentive to sensationalize the news. A candidate like Trump, who thrives on sensationalist statements, he’s tailor-made for the current moment."

On the one hand, it makes sense. The presidential election is an important world event. Donald Trump is the most bizarre candidate ever to win the nomination of a major party.  In fact, "bizarre" fails to capture the outlier-ness, the black swan–ness of Trump. If he was a fictional character, you wouldn't believe him. He'd fail as satire, for being too outlandish.

Donald Trump sign at a suburban backyard near Jordan Creek Parkway and Cody Drive in West Des Moines, IowaEXPAND
Donald Trump sign at a suburban backyard near Jordan Creek Parkway and Cody Drive in West Des Moines, Iowa

But how much more about Trump can we possibly learn? Do we really need another interview with him, another tweet storm, another profile, another take? Why do we keep coming back?

I talked to Dr. Craig Malkin, a lecturer in psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the author of Rethinking Narcissism.

"Absolutely, we are attracted to this kind of extroverted narcissist," Malkin says. "They’re more outgoing, they tend to be chest-thumping, glib, show a lot of braggadocio. They’re overwhelmingly rated as more attractive, whether they’re physically attractive or not. Narcissists are more likely to take risks."

He was quick to insert a number of caveats. First of all, he's not calling Trump a pathological narcissist (there's something called the Goldwater Rule, stating that it's unethical for psychologists to diagnose people without having met them, so named after a group of 1,000 psychologists who did just that to Barry Goldwater in 1964). He's simply saying Trump displays certain characteristics of an extroverted narcissist.

He also points out that many politicians have displayed such characteristics, though he adds: "It’s safe to say Trump is above average, compared to other politicians."

Though we are initially attracted, in a positive way, to narcissists, Malkin says, "Over time, their charm starts to fade."

This dovetails nicely with the study from the Shorenstein Center, which found that coverage of Trump before the Iowa primary was overwhelmingly positive. Only as the campaign has worn (and worn and worn) on has coverage of Trump turned negative.

It's not just the media that's turned on Trump. According to opinion polls, he's the most disliked presidential nominee in modern history.

And yet we can't seem to turn away.

"Precisely because they tend to be more impulsive and often reckless, it’s exciting," Malkin says. "It’s like we can’t wait for the next thing. You can’t look away. You keep wanting to check back and see what’s going on.

"It’s easy to get hooked."


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