Trump talks to a target audience filled with resentful disappointment and squashed expectations, writes Terry Prone
IT’S ALL Down to communication, and the contrasts are fascinating, if confusing, since the best communicator of them all is a non-contender.
Michelle Obama blew them away at this year’s Democractic convention. Best speech. Better delivery than that of her own husband, whose use of autocue is surprisingly predictable — first one side, then the other — for such an intelligent man. Much better delivery than Hillary Clinton. But, according to Barack Obama, the three eternal verities are death, taxes, and the fact that Michelle won’t run for the presidency. Pity. She has prioritised and managed her tasks as First Mother and First Lady better than any previous incumbent with the possible exception of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Not only did Michelle produce the best speech, but she ghost-wrote one of the best speeches at the Republican convention, too. Donald Trump’s wife recycled chunks of an eight-year-old speech by the President’s wife, and it really worked. Up to a point. The point being the stage where someone shook their head and said “You know something? I have a feeling I’ve heard some of that before,” did a little digging and proved that Mrs Trump’s best bits had been lifted from an earlier Michelle oration.
They were lifted because, like all great communication, they reach out over time and space, race and background, nationality and time, to create a commonality of understanding; a sense among listeners that “I know that. I identify with that. That is about me, just as it is about the speaker/writer.”
People vote for candidates, not because of how they feel about the candidate, but because of how the candidate makes them feel about themselves. The reaction to a great speech is not “I get him or her.” The reaction to a great speech is “He/she gets me.”
That’s one of Trump’s communication strengths. He talks to a target audience filled with resentful disappointment and squashed expectations, gathers them in beside him, and promises them that he will restore their lost pride. He also obeys one of the key aspects of candidacy, articulated by a Richard Nixon: people vote against, not for. Trump delivers a small set of hate figures to vote against, starting with Hillary Clinton and moving on to Muslims and immigrants. He is inconsistent. His own wife is an immigrant. (Also a liar, as the removal of her website proves. That was the website where she claimed an architectural degree from the university of Ljubljana in her native Slovenia. The reality is that she was a first year dropout.) His business track record is rotten. His reputation should be in shreds after court revelations of a college he set up which has “scam” written all over it.
However, what his continued popularity demonstrates, in an unprecedented way, is that once resentment and disaffection have been harnessed, inconsistency and bad news become irrelevant. Listeners and viewers have a wondrous capacity to rearrange fact and truth to fit the stance they have adopted: “I’ve made up my mind, don’t bother me with the facts.”
Trump’s phenomenal success in the opinion polls is built on a number of rhetorical devices the Democrats have yet to find a way to counter. The first is simplicity: “We will build a wall to keep Mexicans out and make Mexico pay for it.” The second is repetition: “We will build a wall to keep Mexicans out and make Mexico pay for it.” The third is appeal to a rotted and inchoate pride: “I will make America great again.”
The wall promise has been rubbished with facts. It wouldn’t be possible to build such a wall and it is ludicrous to suggest that the US could force another sovereign nation to pay for it. But the marshalling of facts misses the point that what Trump is promising speaks to a visceral hatred that has damn all to do with data. He speaks an emotional truth to his target audience, and all of the factual contradictions in the world cannot touch that emotional truth.
Trump doesn’t bellow that often when the TV cameras are on. Rather, he leans into the microscope and in a conversational way, persuades the already persuaded that they’ve made the right choice. He never expresses sympathy. Just contempt and confidence in his capacity to do the impossible.
Every presidential election in American history has been won on emotion, rather than facts. If Donald Trump wins this one, it will be the first to be won in flagrant disregard of known facts. In previous elections, candidates were elected despite major known flaws manifest in their biographies, but they were elected at a time before blanket global media capable of delivering the truth to virtually every single elector, as is now the case.
One leading Irish entrepreneur recently commented in mystification on the central myth of Trump’s career: that he is a fantastically successful businessman whose management and financial skills can be extended to the saving of the American economy.
“He is one of the least successful businesspeople in the history of commerce,” the entrepreneur told me. “If he’d invested the money left him by his father, even at 3% interest, and done nothing whatever with it, he would be richer today than he is. His patterns of disastrous investments and bankruptcies should terrify Americans.”
But they don’t, and the fact that they don’t speaks to the power of an oft-repeated myth. Bit like orange juice. Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, in putting juice up there with pizza as a foodstuff he wants his players to avoid, has climbed aboard a change of view that’s taken a long time to initiate. An inspired PR/Marketing man in the middle of the twentieth century created the belief that orange juice would prevent scurvy (true, but rare in the west at the time) and almost every other disease (untrue) and thereby made it a staple of the American breakfast table and a highly-regarded “health” drink outside America. It’s only in the last couple of years that sales of Florida oranges for juicing have dropped and it will take a long, long time for the awareness to take hold that eating an orange takes time and delivers some benefits that the same amount of off-the-shelf juice does not.
Donald Trump is a similar product. More than 20 years ago, he produced a book that portrayed him as a business genius, a deal maker par excellence.
His ghostwriter on that book has now scuppered his chances of ever getting another ghostwriting deal by coming out to tell the truth of the book. Not only is it not based on Trump’s own experience and insights, the ghostwriter maintains, but it is more deeply false. The writer had huge difficulty in getting time with Trump and ended up just following him around as he had disconnected and often ineffective meetings and telephone calls with other business people. Trump’s one constant trait — evidenced then and evidenced now — is inattention. He apparently has the attention span of a fruit fly.
This leads him to the repetitious unevidenced use of slogans and vulgar abuse as his key communication tools. The frightening thing is how well that approach works.
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