How to get a movement mainstream attention

Donald Trump, and even Bernie Sanders, rapidly became mainstream in 2016. It used to take years, even decades, for an outsider to become an insider, writes Alissa Quart.

What does Donald Trump have in common with animal rights activists? Both have ‘mainstreamed’ positions that were until recently marginal.

Trump ran as the ultimate outlier politician; now, he and his ‘alt-right’ allies are normalising beliefs that were beyond the pale. And they are doing so quickly.

Today, a movement or a person can go from outsider to insider in a matter of months, though it once took years or decades.

The US president-elect wasn’t the only candidate to transition from outsider to insider in the 2016 election. Democrat Bernie Sanders won 23 contests in the primary, despite being a 75-year-old socialist calling for ‘a revolution.’

The Vermont senator became a national political sensation in months, having been an obscure representative for decades.

Why are political outsiders moving to the centre more powerfully and more speedily than before? What allowed Trump and his ‘outsider’ elements to gain such a huge following?

In my book, Republic of Outsiders, I explored how outsiders — animal rights activists, transgender people, and many others — have changed what is considered normal in America and shaped it to fit them.

This process may now be very fast, as short as a few seasons. Outlying styles, political stances or aims, and religious beliefs or behaviours may be swiftly normalised: Progressive social developments, like same-sex marriage or transgender people in the military, are happening with less resistance.

My research in the late 2000s showed three key ways that outsiders were moving to the mainstream. The first was through the rapid metabolism of social media and ‘outsider’ publishing, a mixture of technology and the collapse of traditional media.

Nothing shows this mechanism better than Trump’s victory, which relied on outlying news sites, like race-baiting Breitbart News, whose former executive chair, Steve Bannon, is now Trump’s special adviser. (Glenn Beck compared Bannon to Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.)

Trump’s success depended on sites (like the marginal Liberty Writers News), which use exaggerated, often misleading headlines to lure readers.

And fake news stories got many more Facebook engagements than real political coverage on legacy media sites in the last months of the election.

They capitalised on the deep rage that some Americans felt toward ‘insiders,’ such as politicians and public intellectuals. These outsider sites are now connected intimately to the most powerful people and office in the US.

The second way outsiders move their edge to the centre is by coining distinctive phrases or words to describe themselves. This normalises unusual ways of thinking, and unusual identities or tastes.

Animal rights activists now call cattle ‘non-human animals’ to get carnivores to see factory-farming differently. In the worst possible way, the alt-right sobriquet fits the same bill: it uses a novel expression that is catchy and a good cover for the extremity that lurks within.

Doesn’t alt-right sound better than, say, white supremacy? Marginal advocates of all stripes now deploy sophisticated branding strategies to subtly, even deviously, change people’s attitude toward their cause.

The final way that outsiders move into the mainstream quickly is by getting ‘insiders’ to appropriate an outlying idea, culture or identity, ones that were once considered unacceptable or shocking.

Today, outsiders are even more urbane than they once were. They ‘self-co-opt.’ Marginal movements may sell themselves more actively than they would in the past, pitching themselves, rather than just sitting back and waiting for history to absorb or co-opt their viewpoint. They peddle their weirdness.

The heavy sales pitch clearly worked for Trump, who sold his alternative status hard. In one Gallup poll, Republican voters said they supported Trump first and foremost because, in the words of the survey, Trump was an ‘outsider’.

To be sure, the idea of the outsider has been crucial to American identity from the pioneers onward, and the line between American outsiders and insiders has often been porous.

Part of that history consists of Americans deviating from a colonial power’s established religions or traditions. Eventually, however, groups ranging from the Puritans to the settlers of the West, to the abolitionists, became either the dominant power or were embraced by the establishment.

And outsiders haven’t always been benign. On each side of the political divide, self-declared mavericks have created havoc in the US, from the upstate New York ‘burned-over district’ of the 19th century, where religious revivals and Pentecostal movements of the Second Great Awakening took place, to pro-life extremists, who torment or kill abortion providers.

The mayhem-wreaking outsiders are only a slice of the story. Often, outsiders had less radical dreams, like giving women the right to vote.

One thing that the violent and extremist outsiders and the moderate and just outliers had in common was how long their causes took to have a broader effect. Change usually took decades, sometimes centuries.

No longer. After the election, I wondered how the new allure of outsiders, and their speedy ‘mainstreaming’, could help Democratic candidates.

How might the rise of the outsider aid the Bernie Sanders of the near future, like Minnesota congressman, Keith Ellison, Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren, or law professor and activist, Zephyr Teachout, in gaining more national recognition?

Who is to say improbable things can’t happen on the Democrat side, now that the seemingly impossible has happened in the form of president-elect Trump?

Right now, it’s Trump and the alt-right who are speeding into the heart of America. But there are other outliers still out there. They are waiting to change things for the better, as quickly as possible.

This article was supported by the journalism nonprofits, Capital & Main and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. She is the author of Republic of Outsiders, and Branded, among other books.


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