Balk: The benefit of Trump

Tim Balk, Assistant Opinion Editor

Donald Trump is a terrible presidential candidate. In a Republican primary field littered with climate-change deniers, xenophobes and out-of-touch political dinosaurs, Trump might be the worst.

Trump is dead wrong on a variety of political issues and certainly finds little support on the Northwestern campus. However, I will endeavor to give Trump some credit. You see, where Trump the Candidate fails, Trump the Entertainer succeeds, and he thereby brings something to the political process that is a cure, not an ailment.

The disguised blessing provided by Trump’s candidacy comes in the form of attention: Trump gets people talking, listening, watching. In a politically apathetic nation, that’s a special effect.

The setting of the 2016 presidential race should be noted. It is a country with a populace largely indifferent to elections. It is a nation fresh off of a midterm election season in 2014 that saw the worst voter turnout since World War II. In 43 states, less than half the eligible population exercised its right to vote. The national turnout was a dismal 36.3 percent.

Underlying the low participation rates is a serious problem: Americans don’t seem to know or care about the political process. According to a 2014 study at the University of Pennsylvania, only 36 percent of Americans could name the three branches of the Federal Government. Americans seem indifferent and ill-equipped to vote. Many believe their government is boring and inaccessible, and people have busy lives and things to do.

But most folks follow pop culture and entertainment. Americans might not know which party owns the majority in the House or the role of the Judiciary Branch, but they probably know who Caitlyn Jenner and Tom Brady are. Which is where the celebrity politician comes in.

Donald Trump is bringing attention to the election season. Just ask him—he’ll tell you. His name seems to be trending on Facebook every other day. He’s all over Twitter. His presence helped power the embarrassment of (comedic) riches that was the Fox News-televised Republican debate in August to the best Nielsen rating in primary debate television history.

To be sure, not everyone thinks the attention Trump receives is good for American politics.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argued in July that Trump is the culmination of a storm that has been brewing for decades in America — a storm that sees the blurring of the line between “the presidential and the pulchritudinous, between show business and the nation’s business.” We Americans now “expect zingers,” Mr. Bruni declared, ruefully adding, “Trump is the king of zing.”

While Bruni and I can agree on the regality of The Donald, I contest the idea that this merger of pop culture and politics is necessarily a bad trend. Trump is engaging and entertaining people. He is giving Americans a reason to pay attention to our government.

Bernie Sanders is doing the same thing from the left — successfully reaching the younger generation through social media. Although Sanders is far from the off-the-wall character of Trump, the Senator is aggressively using social media and popping up in interviews with Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers — media icons who attract the youth. Sanders, the longtime politician, is clearly less of a celebrity candidate than the boorish Trump, but he, like Trump, is embracing a new-age campaigning style that blends entertainment with policy, if, in his case, only to underscore political ideas.

When the political process is more entertaining, it encourages greater participation and creates a healthier relationship between the people and politicians. In the United Kingdom, where general election turnouts are consistently higher than in the United States, the political process is more fun and spirited. Don’t believe me? Just watch the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. Or better yet, check out the “Thug Life” YouTube videos of Prime Minister David Cameron. When it comes to the Political Process, they have more fun across the pond.

The success of Trump might be a discouraging sign for those hopeful for a better America, but there is little denying that Trump, and all politicians with personalities, bring spice and attention to the usually jejune and haughty political process.

So I will remain convinced that there may in fact be a benefit to Mr. Trump’s decision to run for president. At least until the clown wins and takes up residence in the White House…

Tim Balk is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.