We’re less than a year and a half out from the beginning of the 2024 Presidential Elections, and Donald Trump’s campaign strategy appears set to take a more unique approach than ever before. The former President’s recent appearance at UFC 290 was a reminder of just how deep his ties to MMA and the UFC became over his term in office, and it seems like a sign that the promotion will be a big part of his next campaign.
Last weekend’s UFC event saw Trump talking to an eclectic mix of celebrities, from chef Guy Fieri to actor and director Mel Gibson—both of whom were in attendance at UFC 290. Perhaps the most notable moment was Trump’s ten-second handshake with Joe Rogan ringside.
Donald Trump’s new media strategy
Trump advisor Steven Cheung posted a video of the interaction on Twitter, of an enthusiastic Rogan and cordial Trump continuously shaking hands, pointing at one another, and exchanging encouraging comments. Shortly after it appeared on social media platforms, the video went viral and has been cited in numerous articles detailing Trump’s attendance at the fight card.
It may not feel like that notable an interaction, all things considered. However, in numerous episodes of his Joe Rogan Experience podcast, the longtime UFC commentator has overtly expressed his distaste for Trump as a politician, public figure, and human being—labeling the former president a “man-baby” and claiming that he’s turned down numerous offers to have Trump make a guest appearance on Rogan’s podcast. It’s likely because of that background that the two of them shaking hands got such a big reaction on social media.
Across multiple platforms, many users were incredulous and frustrated at this publicity stunt. Even including celebrities as notable as Jack White, lead singer of the White Stripes. On the morning of July 10th, White took to Instagram to denounce the famous people who took their moment to meet-and-greet the Republican strong man, proclaiming that “Anybody who ‘normalizes’ or treats this disgusting fascist, racist, con man, disgusting piece of s—t Trump with any level of respect is ALSO disgusting in my book.”
In America’s increasingly divisive political climate it’s not surprising that Trump’s public appearance at UFC 290 ruffled a lot of feathers. What’s interesting this time is the setting; we’re used to seeing Trump at rallies packed with red-faced, bellowing supporters or stirring up firestorms at a media press conference with incendiary remarks, not casually lounging with Dana White next to the Octagon.
As a matter of fact, in terms of public appearances, livestreams and videos of Trump’s speeches have been surprisingly absent from cable news, which was his golden goose for GOP propaganda in previous years. It may be, his appearance at UFC 290 last week provides insight into a new media strategy that has recently been revealed by Trump’s campaigning and PR team.
According to Politico, the Trump campaign has recently been showing interest in non-traditional media outlets with impressionable male audiences that are affiliated with contact and combat sports; this includes many podcasts, such as UFC Unfiltered, the Nelk Boys’ Full Send Podcast, and even “Iron” Mike Tyson’s Hotboxin’ Podcast, which Trump could supposedly appear on sometime in the next few months. Rumor has it that Trump may even be interviewed on Barstool Sports, a sports media giant in the online landscape that caters to an audience of young men.
UFC could be a path to grabbing young male voters
Trump’s endeavors in making smaller appearances on niche shows and programs instead of appearing on television news hints at a risky yet acute strategy that aims to appeal to less politically active voters, such as the younger audiences that tune into those platforms.
In response to these recent stunts, especially those at UFC 290, Republican strategist Andy Surabian claims that “Doing non-traditional media and showing up to major cultural events like UFC fights allows former President Trump to hit a completely different audience than doing an interview on Fox News or other political media. He’s putting himself in front of people who are far less politically engaged and don’t necessarily have a baked-in view of him.”
Trump clearly wants to prioritize catering to audiences that put sports before politics by appearing on podcasts like UFC Unfiltered to talk about boxing and combat sports, as one of the show’s hosts claimed he did for 40 minutes when they recently interviewed him for an upcoming show. Essentially, by distancing himself from political discourse and engaging in bipartisan chitchat on these podcasts, Trump is attempting to cement his brand among the younger audiences more in the vein of culture (MMA culture in this context).
The audiences of non-traditional media outlets and fighting events may begin to recognize his distance from the previous several years’ worth of political rhetoric he’s known for, and thus, Trump’s public image will conflict with these aforementioned “baked-in views of him” in the minds of the younger male combat sports fans, which could work to benefit their personal view of Trump and increase the changes of him getting the vote of younger, more politically inactive men.
Trump’s history with combat sports gives him an easy in
So why is this happening in combat sports, of all public events and industries? It’s because Trump’s known for his connections to fighting executives dating back more than three decades and has hosted a number of fighting events on his properties. As seen at UFC 290, Trump is friends with Dana White as well as boxing promoter Don King, and has hosted boxing and wrestling shows at his casino in Atlantic City, NJ. Trump’s advisers claim that appearing on non-traditional platforms illustrates a comfort he has around celebrity and sports culture that supposedly few other politicians can boast.
All in all, these recent stunts and appearances appear to be part of an effort by the Trump campaign to convert the harsh, edgy, and oftentimes anti-“woke” atmosphere surrounding niche media platforms into more votes for the ex-President; carried out through an emphasis on (and distortion of) modern cultural integration while de-emphasizing the political divisiveness that often turns Gen-Zers and millenials away from mainstream news and media.
What does that look like in 2023? Showing up at UFC 290 to shake hands with Joe Rogan, then guesting on all the dude-bro and celebrity podcasts to entertain the thought of having your walk-out music at a fighting event be a Kid Rock song, apparently.
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