This year’s election has engaged social media at a magnitude greater than in previous years, with highly visible campaigns under the microscope more than ever. The center of gravity for the 2016 election is undoubtedly Donald J. Trump. This piece isn’t about his policies, beliefs, or the people he attracts.
Traditionally, we look at the electorate as disjoint demographics with prioritized issues that can be aligned by messaging to form a voting coalition--a way of thinking that only explains Trump’s successes if he had a time machine. There’s an alternate hypothesis among some writers, including Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame), that posit that Trump is a master of stagecraft, treating the election like an episodic reality television show.
I won’t try to steal thunder from these writers here, but rather present a relevant and recent example. It was revealed that Trump not only posed as his own PR manager 25 years ago, but was also the one that leaked the story to the Washington Post. This seems like a self-inflicted wound at first, but there are 3 unconventional benefits:
1) It silenced criticisms of his refusal to release tax returns, 2) It discredited the Washington Post’s highly public opposition research team formed specifically to target him, and 3) It set a precedent that past events from 25 years ago are fair game for his opposition research team.
I assert that this was a manufactured controversy kept in reserve, specifically to trigger a predictable response from a self-styled Fourth Estate to cover for his vulnerabilities. In reality show terms, he forced an unfavorable episode about his wealth to end prematurely, and began the next episode on his terms.
At Booth, we’re big (“yuuuge”) on frameworks, and I want to call attention to two: the Overton Window and the Leesburg Grid. Trump has indicated in interviews that he ad libs frequently and evaluates audience response--combined with his sometimes outlandish statements, he’s using his rallies as a form of large-scale guerilla focus group, determining the edges of what policy positions are within the mainstream (the Overton Window).
He’s also indicated that he tries multiple nicknames for his opponents, to triangulate on the one with the most traction. His choices of nicknames aren’t just simple ad hominems, but allows him to expropriate values, positions, and image from below the line, rebrand them, and force them above the line of a Leesburg grid. Trying to appeal to voters with metered and collected speaking becomes “low energy” with a completely different set of attached perceptions.
Simply calling Trump a populist, nativist, or authoritarian doesn’t explain how these actions are episodically knocking out professional politicians who hold considerably more experience in expressing those positions. In fact, using fundamental analysis on Trump resulted in Nate Silver issuing a public apology on his blog.
Trump may be the candidate that everyone loves to hate today, but consider the following: when your opponent’s campaign merchandise and email blasts prominently bear your name, you’ve effectively been handed carte blanche to move to the unoccupied center.
Come November, the only way to remain staunchly “anti-Trump” may entail adopting increasingly extreme positions, and it will be his detractors that are pushed to the fringes. Every story needs a villain, and if you still think Trump is an unpredictable simpleton, he’ll force that role onto you.
Bryan is graduating in a week and hopes that we are not manipulated by showmanship come November.