6 strategies from Trump’s PR playbook
Like several billion other people, I awoke the day after the U.S. election trying to make sense of the election of Donald Trump as the leader of Canada’s powerful southern neighbour. Even at a time of severe economic anxiety, why did 59 million Americans choose a candidate who has so deeply divided the nation?
The first post I saw – an early-morning essay by New Yorker editor David Remnick – is required reading for every person of conscience. He notes:
“Trump was not elected on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise and the rule of law; he was elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment. Fascism is not our future – it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so – but this is surely the way fascism can begin.”
Reading this moved me from despair to determination. Those who believe in these values Trump rejected need to understand what happened – to fight it, to stop it and to prevent it from happening again.
A victory of communication
That is why we must understand Trump’s election as a victory of communication. No, not of the ethical variety championed by the world’s public relations professional associations, but of a dark art of deception and distortion, one that skilfully exploited the weaknesses of the twenty-first century media landscape.
Despite being the oldest person ever elected U.S. president, Trump was born for the social media age. He intuitively understands the power of disintermediation that allowed him to speak directly to a vast audience, dutifully amplified by the mass media. He subtly signals the dark extremes of society, while understanding that mainstream citizens live in filter bubbles in which we each choose our own news and, dangerously, our own facts. Here’s a typical exchange I experienced (note the user’s ironic Twitter name):
Let’s look at the most dangerous strategies and tactics in the Trump playbook.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity. Here is how the Washington Post’s Ben Terris applies it to the election:
Reporters and political junkies experienced this in a collective way during the vice-presidential debate in October, when Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Trump’s running mate, shook his head “no” to the charge that Trump had praised Vladimir Putin. He denied that Trump had suggested more nations get nuclear weapons, that Trump had proposed a “deportation force” to go after undocumented immigrants, and that Trump wanted to punish women for having abortions.
Never mind that the political press, along with many others, had watched the Republican nominee say all these things in the preceding weeks and months, and it was all on tape. Trump’s running mate used “polish and confidence,” wrote Jamelle Bouie in Slate, “to deny Trump’s rhetoric and behavior and gaslight the country that has borne witness to them.”
The level of defamation in this election was shocking. Trump excelled at it, persuading millions of Americans that Clinton had committed a crime, despite the absence of credible evidence or charges – let alone proof. He knew that his opponent would be unlikely to resort to legal channels, which move too slowly for the internet age, and would also risk keeping the allegations in the news.
This is a favourite of many demagogues – from twentieth century fascists and communists to twenty-first century authoritarian populists: blaming an ‘other’ for an economic or social ill. The only thing liberal about Trump is his use of this strategy, as he targeted African Americans, Latinos, Muslims and women, to list but a few.
Many of Trump’s comments were overt, such as those demeaning women or branding Mexican immigrants as rapists and Muslims as terrorists. Others were covert – so-called dog-whistle politics. Some were perhaps subconscious.
Many dismissed Trump’s darkly brilliant slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ as a typically laughable con job. But for many white men lacking education and prospects, it called to mind a comforting past – one that was anything but great for minorities. At other times, Trump’s social posts revealed his innate bigotry:
4. Media intimidation
A Twitter power user, Trump took full advantage of the reality that in social media, to quote David Remnick, “articles in the traditional fact-based press look the same as articles from the conspiratorial alt-right media.”
Trump’s relentless narrative about the ‘rigged media’ was chillingly effective. First, he roused his supporters to near-violence against reporters at rallies, and looked the other way as white supremacist groups targeted reporters and their families with horrifying threats.
Trump’s ‘rigged media’ narrative also forced editors and reporters everywhere to bend over backwards to show balance. The result: no topic in the election received more attention than Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State – a minor transgression by any objective measure when compared with Trump’s misbehaviour.
5. Lack of transparency
I once thought no one could get elected to the American presidency without the normal procedure of revealing his or her tax returns – both to confirm their bona fides and to avoid conflicts of interest. I was wrong. Voters let Trump off the hook entirely, and he managed to get through the campaign without meeting this basic test of transparency.
The one blessing of the social media age is that transparency is sometimes forced upon a news maker, as Trump discovered at the low point of his campaign – the release of the Access Hollywood video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. And that brings us to…
6. The fake apology
Trump is not known for admitting errors, let alone apologizing. The release of his shocking comments about women forced him to do so. His first words reminded me of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford: “I never said I’m a perfect person…” (as if that were the standard to which he was being held).
Having said just enough to generate headlines saying he had apologized, Trump’s video segues into attacks on Hillary and Bill Clinton. The effect is to nullify the apology entirely. Rancour is not remorse and apologies are not attacks. This type of non-apology actually compounds the wrong-doing. It prevents restoration and halts healing.
A democratic imperative
Here are the questions we must ask: How could this happen? How can we stop it from happening again?
In a speech the evening before the election, President Obama noted that social media “magnifies our divisions and muddies up the facts.” As the politician who pioneered the use of social media as a campaign tool in 2008, Obama understands the new media’s virtues – and dangers.
A week is a long time in politics: the adage predates social media. In today’s age of information overload, of short memories and attention spans, of transient celebrity and instant gratification, a week has become an eternity. The disgraced candidate of October becomes the victor of November.
We live at a time that requires more vigilance than ever, not an easy task for voters complacent in the durability of their democracy and unaware of the fragility of their freedoms.
To be clear, I hope Trump confounds expectations and unifies the nation. Regardless of what happens during the Trump presidency, however, the lessons from this campaign are grim but clear: only by understanding how communication can be used for division can we aspire to see communication used more often for hope, healing and harmony.