The other day I wrote a bit about how the coalition of people who elected Donald Trump seemed to reflect the demographics of the audience for fringe history. I’d like to pick up on that a little bit, both because it interests me and also because comparatively few people read my Sunday blog posts relative to the other days of the week. I’m not feeling terribly inspired today to research something new. But I saw that the History Channel aired a special two days before the election on Nostradamus’ 2016 election prophecies, and I figured it would be worthwhile to look into why they would do such a thing.
The History Channel posted (from standard translation) 22 quatrains it fantasizes Nostradamus meant to apply to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or at least the current American political situation since 9/11. This is prima facie ridiculous. Wherever did he have the space to prophesy about Hitler and Ronald Reagan and everyone else he supposedly foresaw? Do they want us to believe that Nostradamus really devoted more quatrains to Hillary Clinton than to World War II?
They selected quatrains that they could pretend have Nostradamus calling Clinton the “man-woman” and they apply the label “audacious brawler” to Trump, whom the show bizarrely calls Drumpf, after a John Oliver joke, on its website. Is someone on staff passive-aggressively anti-Trump? The cheaply made show had its “experts” confidently predict a Clinton victory. And then the show backtracked and argued that “some say” other prophecies, which they gave only a second to, predicted a Trump victory. How convenient! Just like the ambiguous prophecies of Nostradamus, History produced a show that could be read in two ways, to cover every eventuality! But the overall message was that the producers expected a Clinton win. That puts in perspective the descent into political violence and global catastrophe they had Nostradamus predict for the aftermath of the election. Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
A few years ago, I reviewed the demographics for the History Channel and the now-defunct H2 spinoff channel. Unfortunately, the agency that provided those numbers has since removed their demographic data from public view. I guess it’s a good thing I saved the numbers. Here’s how I characterized them then:
Nearly 40% of the H2 network’s audience is over 55, though slightly more attended college (43%). Just about half of H2 viewers live in households making more than $50,000 per year (median income $51,000), while the wealthy (above $75,000) make up less than a third of viewers (30%). At the parent History channel, things aren’t much rosier. The same number of viewers are over 55, though slightly more attended college (45%). Median household income is only slightly higher ($58,500), with slightly more wealthy viewers (above $75,000), making up 38% of the audience.
By comparison, just so you know, the Discovery Channel, a competitor to History, has a younger audience (70% under 55), but with fewer college educated viewers (36%) and more household wealth (almost half over $75,000 per year). The college education numbers are probably skewed some by the larger youth segment of its audience who are high school or college students who have yet to earn a degree. I don’t have data breaking down just adult viewers.
Let us throw in for good measure that a Scarborough USA+ study determined in 2012 that History Channel audiences were more likely to be Republican or Independent than Democrat. Reading into the numbers, which come from self-reporting of survey participants, the conclusion is that History Channel viewers are more conservative than the average American.
While the numbers are not broken down by race, the proxies used by the media to suggest race in turn suggest that History viewers are largely white.
Now let’s look at the demographics who voted for Donald Trump: According to Pew Research’s analysis the day after the election, white voters picked him by 21 percentage points. Men sided with Trump by 12 points, white men by an overwhelming margin—63% voted for Trump. Voters without a college degree picked Trump by 8 points. When we combine these demographics, Pew Research found that whites without a college degree backed Trump by “overwhelming” margins—somewhere around 67% voted for Trump. Whites with a college degree also sided with Trump by a smaller 5-point margin. Older adults, over 65, picked Trump 53% to 45%. Researchers did not break down income by race, but Trump seems to have done especially well at the bottom with white voters and at the top with everyone else, winning the majority of voters with incomes over $50,000.
Those numbers look awfully familiar, don’t they? They are within spitting distance of your average History Channel viewer—or Fox News viewer, or any other channel that appeals to the same general audience.
Therefore, when we see that the History Channel supports the same brand of misinformation as Donald Trump—slightly veiled white ethno-nationalism, anti-government conspiracies, paranoia that “they” are rigging the system against “us,” etc.—we should not be surprised. The media know their audiences, and they know what draws viewers. While the History Channel’s viewership (averaging just 885,000 primetime viewers in the week before the election) is a miniscule fraction of the 60 million people who voted for Trump, and we can’t say that most (or even a majority) of Trump voters vote for him because of his conspiracy theories and paranoid misinformation, it doesn’t surprise me to see that the same stew of bad ideas that attracts viewers to History can be scaled up and used to attract voters as well. Paranoid white ethno-nationalists are not a majority of Trump voters or History viewers, but if you are one, you probably voted Trump and plan to settle in this week for Curse of Oak Island and, perhaps especially, Hunting Hitler.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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