By Agbo Agbo
Few would have predicted last year that Donald Trump would be the 45th President of the United States of America. It was thought – when the race began – that as a reality show host he would merely provide an exciting entertainment bent in the race for the White House. A bit of breaking from the norm and including “outsiders” would do.
With experienced and established politicians like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz amongst other contestants, analysts, pollsters and the media believed he would fizzle out before the race heats up. But his steady rise baffled many of them; even the Republican Party was baffled with his steady rise. It was eventually too late for them to throw a spanner in the works to stop him. Not even an open denunciation from conservative Republicans like Mitt Romney and others could stop him.
Now that Trump has done the “unthinkable,” experts in political communication are dusting up their books and theories once again and asking what kept the New York real estate billionaire going and what communication lessons can we learn from him?
Although he made sexist comments, derided the physically challenged and racist remarks and has broken nearly every rule in the political communication playbook, he succeeded in gaining a zealous following as a result. Not even Hilary Clinton’s reference to his supporters as “baskets of deplorables” could stop their support for their “idol” that would “make America great again.” It is instructive to note that no one even asked Trump what making America great again really is; it wasn’t critically interrogated.
It doesn’t matter whether you love him or hate him; it’s hard to deny the man is a master of communication. His style simply resonates with many people. Although Trump’s candidacy will undoubtedly change how future politicians approach communication, the implications of his success are much broader: What lessons can communications expert learn from Trump when it comes to connecting and engaging with skeptical citizens?
The first lesson is: “understanding the time.” It is glaring now that we live in a post-modern and post-trust era where citizens look at every institution – government to business – with incredible skepticism. Voters are anxious, angry and open to alternatives – whatever alternatives. Trump understood this and worked feverishly to fill this void. Gaffes aside, Trump used the following strategies to shift his image from an insensitive capitalist billionaire to influential ‘man of the people.’
He has a “clear narrative,” a master story that he sticks to. He preys on the people’s fears of terrorists and immigrants and made that a consistent narrative. Not even former President Obama’s reminder that all Americans – except Native Americans – were once immigrants could deter those that believe in him. Everywhere he went, this message was consistent.
He also understands and taps into simple, emotional truths. As a result of globalization and competition, some jobs left the U.S seeking cheaper sources of production and profit – that’s capitalism in the first place. This shift left a lot of workers jobless- the so called “white working class. In reality, this cuts across all races, but Trump cashed in on this to gain the support of disgruntled whites.
Understanding the people’s emotions meant he also “speaks their language.” He reframes every question into language he prefers. He is deliberately; decidedly different from his peers in both his style and approach. He defined this as not being “politically correct.” He hit hard on the “establishment” which was why all his fellow contestants fell on the wayside.
Fundamentally, Trump consistently relates all of his ideas back to a master slogan: “Make America great again.” While he was doing this, a more experienced candidate like Jeb Bush did not even clarify to the public just what he stood for – beyond being anti-Trump. Bush is not offering a consistent narrative or tone, and he struggles to present an idea or story for voters to embrace. By practicing consistency and discipline in his message, Trump ensures his campaign carries momentum.
The struggle for power – in some instances – is sometimes fought using unconventional means. This means that elections are not fought using reason; they’re fought using emotion. Trump recognises this, and while his rivals focus on debating various issues, Trump was busy leading an emotional movement. Sen. Lindsay Graham had the best technical understanding of any of the candidates, but he dropped out of the last GOP race because he couldn’t convey his message in a captivating way.
Often, the way to persuade people is to tap into what matters to them emotionally. Trump offers that by persistently raising issues that strike emotional chords with voters. He was probably the wealthiest of all the candidates, but Trump comes across to many as “deeply human” by using the peoples’ vernacular. He cuts through the complexity of political conversations and talks as he would every day. For example, Sen. Rand Paul might have more populist ideas, but his language is often “academic” and “sophisticated” to the people. Paul comes across as though he was speaking only to an intellectual elite; Trump aims to speak to everyone.
In 2013, it was widely believed that Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment derailed his campaign. Although he had many of the same vulnerabilities that Trump had in the last election, but Trump dealt with his problems more effectively. If voters accuse him of being racist, he says he’s for security. When he’s accused of being sexist, he reframes the argument – and says he’s not sexist, but simply against imposed “political correctness.” Whatever the issue, Trump often reframes the question of his character and puts things into more favourable terms.
Though his peers fight to be better than one another, Trump focuses his time on a simpler task: “being different.” Most voters can predict what will come out of the mouths of most politicians, but Trump keeps people interested with the possibility that he’ll say something unexpected. Every other GOP candidate sounds similar, but there’s only one Trump.
Trump really did his homework by understanding citizenship communication. He fully and expertly exploited the discontent in the society just like Nnamdi Kanu is doing with the Biafra issue in Nigeria. If we dig deep, the hundreds of thousands of youth falling over the rallying cry of Biafra have other grievances at the back of their minds, Biafra happens to provide the springboard for them to vent their frustrations.
The lesson: whenever there’s discontent in the society you need a higher kind of communication to counter populists who would exploit it. Two things are critical in analyzing Trump. First, there is definitely a pattern to his patois. And second, whether deliberate or not – and there’s reason to think it may be more deliberate than it seems – the man’s style of speaking developed into a remarkably effective delivery mechanism for his message. No matter how much the media mocked it; Trumpese – as we’ve seen – helped Trump rather than hurt him.
Interestingly, Trump didn’t employ speechwriters. He rarely relies on Teleprompters. He barely even uses notes. He basically “improvises his speeches.” At a point in his campaign, his twitter account was “taken away” from him to prevent his angry tirade on twitter which can come at any time of the day.
From his style to his message, he certainly set himself apart. Public Relations consultants and politicians often face the same challenges. If an organization is struggling to stand out from the crowd, fighting advocacy battles and critics, or seeking ways to emotionally connect with consumers, Trump’s unique style could provide the answer.