The key is making Trump’s instinct for America’s sore spots the engine of a political machine designed to inflame supporters. At its core, his campaign is a kind of a perpetual outrage machine. It uses algorithms—automated settings on Internet platforms like Google and Facebook—to place massive digital ad buys anytime Trump creates a firestorm. The cycle is simple: Trump says something controversial or offensive; that drives a surge of search interest in the topic; and that gives his campaign an opening to serve up online ads. The ads encourage supporters to text the campaign, take single-question campaign-generated polls, and buy Trump hats, yard signs, beer coolers and WITCH HUNT decals from the campaign online store, all of which rakes in voter contact data.
Never before has an incumbent President run a campaign this way. “It is a strategy built for the new partisan era,” says Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer. “Candidates are always doing things to turn out their supporters. What has not been tested, at least in modern times, is a strategy in which all the rhetoric and all the policy is just tailored around the turnout crowd and there is no effort to go beyond it.”
Which brings us to the wager on which the gambler has staked a second term. Trump has already smashed the norms of American politics, remade the Republican Party into his cheering gallery and taken the national news cycle hostage. Can he win a second term on the basis that’s he’s governed in the first, by playing to his base?