Donald Trump: The joke that went too far – from harmless narcissist to serious threat.


Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president of the United States, in June of 2015, the media has seemingly imploded. Donald Trump’s media presence has been overwhelming, reportedly receiving close to $2 billion worth of free press coverage (Confessore & Yourish 2016). Donald Trump is known for being the real estate tycoon, responsible for such feats as the Trump Towers and for being the star of popular reality television show, The Apprentice. Trump has been in the limelight since he became a prominent figure in elite social circles of New York in the 1980’s (Friedersdorf 2016). There is clearly a close relationship between Donald Trump and the media which stretches back to long before his campaign for presidency.

For this analysis the portrayal of Donald Trump in the media is examined from his candidacy announcement in 2015 to his 2016 campaign for presidency. This analysis will focus on how prominent media outlets, such as The New York Times and USA TODAY, have chosen to portray Donald Trump and how, over the life of his campaign, a distinct shift in characterisation and tone can be noted.

My research shows that, initially, Trump was framed by the media as a joke, a comical figure and a narcissist. However, following his campaigns success, the media seemingly shifted tact and unconventionally turned to denouncing him, characterising him as a serious threat. It was the first time prominent and highly respected media outlets had so vigorously and openly condemned a candidate.

It is the purpose of this analysis to outline the apparent shift in characterisation and tone and to ultimately examine the reasoning behind this and attempt to understand the media’s motivation in their portrayal of Donald Trump during his presidential campaign.

All articles examined are opinion/views journalism, with two articles taken from both The New York Times and USA TODAY in order to better ascertain and highlight the shift in characterisation and tone from 2015 to 2016. The papers were chosen for a number of reasons, following my research on the topic I found the two papers were indicative of a trend across a number of media outlets in their portrayal of Donald Trump. Due to their prominence, respectability and circulation, the papers are often referred to as sources for other media outlets, with both being counted in the top three widest circulated newspapers in the US by the most recent Audit Bureau of circulation. (MediaMiser 2016)


Image taken from article
Image taken from (Mann 2015) USA TODAY article

In June 2015, Windsor Mann wrote an opinion piece for USA TODAY, ‘Donald Trump’s rambling presidential pomp.’ The headline itself characterises Trump in a negative light, as ‘rambling’ suggests incoherency and serves to undermine Trumps intelligence, whilst ‘pomp’ highlights his narcissistic tendencies of vanity and ostentatiousness.

Mann (2015) remarks that, “Trump made the announcement at Trump Tower in New York City, presumably in an effort to elicit headlines like, ‘Trump towers at Trump Tower’.” Mann’s statement serves to highlight the narcissistic tendencies of Trump and highlights the sarcastic and facetious tone of the author. This tone is echoed when referencing Ivanka Trump’s comment, ‘that her father is the opposite of politically correct’ by suggesting, “Many would say the same thing, only without the politically part” (Mann 2015). Mann makes no effort to hide his opinion or to back it up with factual or evidentiary support which suggests the expectation of an agreeing audience and an established characterisation of Trump which will go unchallenged. “Speaking of military matters, Trump was right about a couple of them. He said that Humvees are ‘big vehicles’ (a quick Google images search confirms this). ‘We have wounded soldiers’, Trump (correctly) informed the audience” (Mann 2015). This exert clearly serves to attack Trump’s credibility and undermine his intelligence, outlining the authors view of Trump as a comical figure. The author’s choice of parentheses again highlights use of sarcasm, a seeming attempt to speak directly to readers, suggesting an expectation that the audience will share his view of Trump.

There are many examples of the author’s characterisation of Trump as narcissistic and self-obsessed, maintaining the mocking tone present throughout the article. “On the most pressing issue- golf courses- Trump has ‘the best courses in the world’. Of course he does. Anything and everything bearing his name is the best…..Presumably if the Unites States were to be renamed Trump Territory, Trump would call it the best, finest and most spectacular country in the world” (Mann 2015). The author is explicit in his characterisation and the piece is highly evaluative and opinion based, making use of emotive language and a mocking tone to further frame Trump in a decidedly negative light.

Similarly, an opinion piece taken from The New York Times in September 2015 by Joe Nocera ‘Is Donald Trump Serious?’, Trump is clearly and deliberately characterised as a comical figure, a joke not be taken seriously. Nocera presents an evaluative piece with a strongly negative stance on Donald Trump. Nocera opens with the line, “As part of his ongoing effort to make a mockery of the American political process, Donald Trump released his tax plan on Monday morning” (Nocera 2015). This sets the tone for the article where the author repeatedly makes sarcastic quips regarding Donald Trump and his presidential campaign.

The author explicitly characterises Trump as a figure not to be taken seriously in the statement, “like almost everything else about the Trump campaign, his tax plan is hard to take seriously,” (Nocera 2015) and ultimately suggests that Trump’s campaign, rather than a serious political campaign, is likely a publicity stunt, an attempt to further promote the Trump brand.

Like the previous article taken from USA TODAY, the validity of Trump’s candidacy is belittled and Trump is ultimately framed as a joke, someone to laugh at and promptly dismiss. “I wonder whether even now Trump is a serious candidate, or whether this is all a giant publicity ploy” (Nocera 2015). Nocera claims, “I’m not alone in wondering this, of course,” and supports this statement with an appeal to authority by referencing Republican strategist, Rick Wilson.  Wilson states, “You would see him spending a lot more money if he were putting together a true national infrastructure” (Nocera 2015). This marks the only point in the article where the author seeks to convince the reader of his view, otherwise his stance on Trump is expected to be shared by the reader and is unsupported by factual or evidentiary references.

The article is largely an attempt by the author to discredit Trump as a real candidate, and to ultimately characterise him as a joke, a narcissist obsessed with publicity, someone not to be taken seriously by the public. “All his life, Trump has had a deep need to be perceived as a ‘winner’. He always has to be perceived coming out on top. The more famous he becomes, the more he can charge to slap his name on buildings or perfume or men’s suits” (Nocera 2015). These comments are highly evaluative with emotive language being used to frame Trump in a negative light. This again suggests the authors fundamental belief that his opinion is widely shared and unlikely to be challenged by readers. The author refers to a ’60 Minutes’ interview with Scott Pelley, where he describes Pelley as, “struggling to keep a straight face” (Nocera 2015). The author uses exclamation marks to convey the perceived ridiculousness of Trumps political ideas. “Trump told Pelley that he would force the Chinese to ‘do something’ about North Korea’s nuclear program-while also preventing them from devaluing their currency!”, “that he would get rid of Obamacare-while instituting universal coverage!” (Nocera 2015).

The author makes an evaluation at the end of the article that Trumps political stint will come to a quick end, due to his inherent narcissism, “I don’t think he’ll ever put himself at the mercy of actual voters in a primary. To do so is to risk losing. And everyone will know it. He’ll be out before Iowa. You read it here first” (Nocera 2015). This is purely the evaluative opinion of the author, which again serves to undermine the credibility of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and characterise him as a joke, not to be taken seriously or worry too much about.

What is interesting to note is that both of the articles taken from 2015, characterise Trump in a startlingly similar way and this is reflected across the media at the time. The articles’ focus on the narcissism of Trump, highlighting an obsession with publicity and branding, and both take a distinctly mocking and sarcastic tone. The articles’ characterise Trump as someone to laugh at and mock for his ridiculousness. Neither authors’ expect their readers to disagree with their characterisation, suggesting this characterisation is a given and agreed upon by the majority of people. Trump is conveyed by both in an entirely negative light with no mention of alternative views, showing a clear belief of an unchallenging audience. In the articles the predominant view expressed portrays Trump as a joke, a narcissist who is too ridiculous to present a threat.

However, after examining articles taken from 2016 there is a noticeable shift in tone and characterisation. The articles’ focus less on Trump as the narcissistic, comical figure and more on Trump as a very real threat and danger to democracy, highlighting him as a racist, a misogynist and strongly discouraging readers from voting for him. This interestingly shows a different expectation of readers, one where they are challenging and need convincing, cementing the view that Trump is no longer a joke but a dangerously viable candidate. Trump is characterised in a more serious tone as a misogynist and a racist, and the articles chosen are taken from the editorial board, showing the shift from lighthearted mocking, to a strong appeal to authority, as senior members of the two prominent papers defy standard news protocol to publicly condemn Trump as a presidential candidate.

In the case of USA TODAY, the article itself is focused around the phenomenon of the paper’s editorial board taking sides in the election and publicly condemning Donald Trump as a candidate for the presidency. The September 2016 article is itself titled, ‘USA TODAY’S editorial board: Trump is ‘unfit for Presidency’. The article is accompanied by a short clip with members from the board, the editorial page editor, Bill Sternberg, and the operations editor, Thuan Elston, explaining why, for the first time since the paper’s origination 34 years ago, the board has disregarded its objective stance and decided to discourage Americans from voting for Donald Trump. The article cites that, ‘normally there are two capable candidates, whereas in this election Donald Trump does not represent a capable candidate, ‘fit’ for presidency’.


See link:


This clip is captioned with “We haven’t made a recommendation in 34 years. For this election, we made an exception”. The article itself has a byline that reads, “The editorial board has never taken sides in the presidential race. We’re doing it now” (USA TODAY 2016). This repetition seemingly seeks to simultaneously convey the gravity of the situation, suggesting that Trump is such a false candidate that it has prompted the paper to act in an unprecedented way, and to justify the papers actions of disregarding an objective stance on the election. This justification can be seen in the following lines. “We’ve expressed opinions about the major issues and haven’t presumed to tell our readers, who have a variety of priorities and values, which choice is best for them. Because every presidential race is different, we revisit our no-endorsement policy every four years. We’ve never seen reason to alter our approach. Until now” (USA TODAY 2016).

The following paragraph again seeks to justify the actions of the paper, suggesting that if they were presented with a capable candidate they would not be subjective, however, Donald Trump is not a capable candidate. Unlike the 2015 article the tone is somber and serious, the article clearly doesn’t expect the audience to be in agreement or unchallenging, due to the lengths with which they’ve taken to justify their stance. The article is then structured into subheadings of reasons why Trump is an unfit candidate, entitled; ‘He is erratic, he is ill-equipped to be commander in chief, he traffics prejudice, his business career is checkered, he isn’t leveling with the American people, he speaks recklessly, he has coarsened the national dialogue and finally, he’s a serial liar’. There is no humour, sarcasm or traces of facetiousness in terms of the tone of the article, the article is very much a concerted attempt to frame Trump, not as a joke, but as a very real threat that has prompted serious action.

The article is undeniably explicit in its central claim and states this throughout the article, “Now is the time to spell out, in one place, the reasons Trump should not be president” (USA TODAY 2016). The article makes multiple appeals to authority to back its various arguments against Trump, citing the opinion of Robert Gates, “the highly respected former defence secretary who served presidents of both parties over a half-century,” who described Trump as, “beyond repair” (USA TODAY 2016). The article references a 1973 Justice department suit against Trump and his father for discrimination against African Americans in housing rentals and a series of USA TODAY network articles which, “found that Trump has been involved in thousands of lawsuits over the past three decades” (USA TODAY 2016). Unlike the previous USA TODAY article analysed, this article attempts to draw a factual and evidentiary basis for its opinion. Unlike the previous article, reference to alternative views are made. “We are not unmindful of the issues that Trump’s campaign has exploited: the disappearance of working class jobs; excessive political correctness; the direction of the Supreme Court…. All are legitimate sources of concern” (USA TODAY 2016). This again shows a change in the assumption of audience, referencing the ‘legitimate sources of concern’, that Trump has ‘exploited’ shows, albeit still using language to frame Trump as negative, a need to convince a questioning audience and to discourage fence sitters from voting for Trump.

This is further conveyed in the final recommendation of the article. “Our bottom-line advice for voters is this: Stay true to your convictions. That might mean a vote for Clinton. Or it might mean a third-party candidate. Or a write in ………Whatever you do, however, resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.” (USA TODAY 2016)

Similarly, The New York Times also produced an opinion article in September 2016 from the editorial board entitled, ‘Why Donald Trump should not be president’.

It is interesting to note an apparent trend in prominent news outlets such as The New York Times, USA TODAY and other papers such as the Washington Post to unanimously denounce Trump within the same time period. The Washington Post wrote a piece in July 2016 from the editorial board entitled, ‘Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy.’

The New York Times article is structured in a similar way to that of the USA TODAY article, with subheadings, this time in the form of questions, regarding Trump’s appeal, such as ‘A straight talker who tells it like it is?’ and ‘A change agent for the nation and the world?’. The article proceeds to systematically debunk these ‘selling points’ cleverly addressing alternative views whilst systematically arguing against them. This again shows a shift in the assumption of an agreeing audience, to one that needs convincing, and a clear change in tone from mocking to serious.

The article similarly makes its central claim abundantly clear not only in the headline but again in the byline, ‘Donald Trump is a man who dwells in bigotry, bluster and false promises.’

Another point for comparison can be seen in the images the authors’ have chosen to accompany the article. In the previous article taken from the New York Times, the image included is in colour and conveys an almost comical expression on Trump’s face. The image accompanying the latter article is in black and white and Trump wears a stern and serious expression. This shows a visual and literal shift in the tone of the articles.

Image taken from article
Image taken from USA Editorial Board 2016 article

While in the former article Donald Trump was referred to as Trump, in the latter article he is referred to as Mr. Trump, again suggesting a shift in the stance of the authors. Trump is no longer a joke, Mr. Trump represents a serious threat. In the article there is a repetition of key words, ‘dangerous’ and ‘fear,’ showing a clear characterisation of Trump as a threat. The article makes use of the same examples as that of the USA TODAY’S editorial board, such as Trumps failure to release his tax returns, and both make reference to a list from NBC detailing Trumps shifting stance on key issues. However, it is worthy of note that USA TODAY reports the list as outlining 124 shifts on 20 major issues whilst The New York Times reports it as 117 shifts on 20 major issues. Whatever the number both articles are undeniably similar in their approach to condemning Trump.

The article is evaluative in its highly emotive language such as, “Mr. Trumps views were matters of dangerous impulse and cynical pandering rather than thoughtful politics,” (The New York Times 2016) but unlike the previous article from the New York Times, it does make reference to factual and evidentiary support to justify the authors’ opinions. Like USA TODAY’s editorial piece, the article is strong in its recommendations, with repeated reference to what voters should do, “voters should be asking themselves if Mr. Trump will deliver the kind of change they want…..Voters should also consider Mr. Trump’s silence about areas of national life that are crying out for constructive change” (The New York Times 2016). Both these recommendations are followed by a series of hypothetical questions in response, such as, “How would he change our schools for the better?” The final paragraph stresses a strong recommendation to readers, “voters attracted by the force of the Trump personality should pause and take note of the precise qualities he exudes as an audaciously different politician: bluster, savage mockery of those who challenge him, mendacity……Our presidents are role models for generations of our children. Is this the example we want for them?” (The New York Times 2016) This highlights the drastic shift in tone, characterisation and expectations of audience. Here the authors are strongly appealing to their readers, not to vote for Trump, suggesting the assumption that they need to convince their readers.

Concluding, my research suggests that the media’s initial response to Donald Trump, in the early stages of his campaign, was to characterise him as a joke and maintain mocking and sarcastic tones when describing him. Following his campaign successes, the media shifted to a more serious tone, moving away from characterising him as a joke, to a demagogue, a serious threat and a danger to democracy.

Furthering this analysis, in an attempt to understand the media’s actions, a study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which assessed the coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign by mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times and USA TODAY, has been examined. The study found that the media have covered Donald Trump in, “a way that was unusual given his initial polling numbers.” (Patterson 2016) Suggesting Trump received an inordinate amount of coverage even before his polling numbers justified it. This could be due to the outrageous, flamboyant and highly entertaining nature of Trump and the inherently capitalist nature of the current media, where ratings are prioritised. Now that Trump is edging closer and closer to being President of the United States, the media have perhaps realised their role in his rise and are desperately attempting to amend the situation, ignoring common precedent by publicly denouncing his candidacy for presidency and strongly urging readers not to vote for him in the coming election.



Reference List

Leave a Reply