The World Will Soon Start Talking Like Trump
Three lessons about communicating that politicians in the United States, and abroad, are learning from the current U.S. president.
Debate rages in the United States about President Donald Trump’s policies, integrity, and even his sanity. But no one doubts that Trump, through his surprise election victory and unprecedented approach to governance, has redefined political communication. For better or worse, every future president and presidential candidate will seek to learn from, and at least partially emulate, Trump’s unique and successful methods in this. Because America often sets trends in political communication, we should also expect to see such Trumpian techniques adopted abroad as well.
Of course, there is considerable disagreement about precisely what those techniques are and which aspects of them will endure and transfer into other campaigns. It is early days, but at least three aspects of Trumpian political communication are likely to endure.
Direct communication with voters
The most obvious and most commented upon aspect of Trumpian communication is the president’s use of Twitter. Trump is quite simply addicted to the medium—and he has stuck to it despite warnings from his political advisors that it is unwise for a president to make unfiltered use of social media.
Of course, many politicians were on Twitter before Trump became president. Indeed, as of this writing, former President Barack Obama still has nearly twice as many followers (103 million) as the White House’s current occupant (55 million). But unlike Obama, Trump does not use social media to simply reinforce staid messages that echo what comes from other channels.
Obama’s tweets usually sound like press releases and during his presidency often echoed them. He never engaged in a conversation with voters. Trump, by contrast, clearly values Twitter precisely because it provides him with direct access to voters, unencumbered by the press, advisors, the government bureaucracy, or even personal reflection. He provides breaking news on his feed not available elsewhere and provides insight into his thinking through tweets. Even when using social media, previous presidents seem almost cloistered, limited to public communication through formal speeches or other heavily mediated channels.
Trump’s access to Twitter has also, to a degree, enabled his war on the media; he doesn’t need the press to accept or acquiesce to his decisions in the way that previous presidents did. As they required the media to get their message out, Trump’s predecessors cultivated journalists—even if they felt the press often treated them unfairly. Trump feels no such need for the media and no compunction about tearing down journalists in the most vicious terms.
Future presidents will not miss this lesson. They may lack Trump’s wild abandon and pre-dawn tendency for Twitter outbursts. But even if they seek to project a more measured persona, they will seek to use social media to establish a direct relationship with voters, especially their supporters. They will appreciate social media’s unique capacity to circumvent the numerous filters—media, bureaucratic, and political—that both protect and isolate the president and to control the news cycle.
The era of the cloistered president is over.
Governing against his own government
Practically every presidential candidate in recent history has run against Washington, claimed to be from outside the establishment, and lambasted the federal government for its myriad sins. Even George W. Bush, the son of a president and the grandson of a senator, projected this image—and, to some extent, it worked. In this sense, Trump’s vitriolic attacks on the Washington establishment during his campaign were nothing new.
But only Trump has continued his attacks on the government once in office. After all, most presidents reasoned that they controlled the federal government and would, at least after the first few months in office, be held responsible for its actions. In reality, of course, they all often felt that many government agencies were quite difficult to rein in. But they were loath to admit this to the American public, lest voters found their leadership wanting. Trump has no such reservations. He talks about, for example, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, and the State Department—parts of the government that officially answer to him—as if they were foreign enemies.
This strategy has at least partially enabled Trump to disavow the actions of his own government, giving him many of the communications advantages of the outsider even while he remains the most powerful man in the world.
In many countries, the idea of a shadowy elite conspiracy that thwarts the will of the leader is a staple of domestic politics. In Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the idea of a “deep state” to inspire his base and distract them from allegations of corruption against him. In China, President Xi Jinping has used an anti-corruption campaign against his own government and party to enhance his personal popularity.
Of course, the United States has more effective and respected government institutions than either Turkey or China. But 30 years of anti-government rhetoric from Republicans have taken their toll on the popularity of government institutions (except the military). Americans are clearly more willing to believe in a deep state than in the past. And if it can work in a deeply institutionalized government like that in the United States, it can work anywhere.
Overall, the jury is still out on whether this will be an effective political tactic. But if this stance does not come back to haunt Trump in his re-election bid, we should expect future presidents to seek this advantage, too, railing against the federal government even as they lead it.
Dismissal of expertise and the truth
Before Trump, most presidential candidates sought the approval of at least a portion of the expert and media class. Without some established experts in their corner, they risked being labeled crackpots and could not, so the argument ran, convince the public that they had the intelligence and gravitas to be trusted with the most powerful office in the world. The media would not even give such people airtime.
Trump, however, never felt the need to co-opt even part of the expert class to reinforce and validate his message. And it didn’t appear to matter. It is now clear that many voters didn’t really care much about the views of experts. Rather, media gatekeepers and political party fundraisers did, so candidates who did not pass the expertise test never got much access to the public. But Trump was able to use his pre-existing celebrity to bypass the media and fundraising filter of the expert class, communicating directly with the public. In the process, he demonstrated that the support of experts is unimportant for political success.
It turns out that indifference to expert validation is quite liberating for political communication. You can really say anything without worrying about whether it will alienate the expert class or reduce your standing with the public.
As is often noted, Trump has quite a distant relationship with the truth. The Washington Post has compiled a list of more than 5,000 false or misleading claims that he made in the first 601 days of his presidency, an average of 8.3 falsehoods a day. Some of these lies (such as the claim that the Russia investigation is a hoax) have been repeated up to 140 times, despite the fact that multiple news sources have repeatedly disproved them. At this point, Trump appears uninterested in whether he is telling the truth.
Of course, all presidents have lied to the American people at times. But the scale and brazenness of the Trump falsehood machine implies that his lies are not merely an effort to hide the truth. They are part of a communications strategy. Before Trump, there was a widespread assumption that even if lying was sometimes necessary, it was politically dangerous. Yet without the need for expert and media validation, there is little political downside to lying. Trump’s freedom to lie means that his communication strategy does not need to be constrained by facts, experts, or really anything beyond his own febrile imagination. This is an enormous communications advantage that future presidential candidates and foreign leaders will no doubt seek to emulate. This genie is unlikely to be put back in the bottle, even for candidates who lack Trump’s celebrity.