Good old bad or why people even listen to Trump

by Olga Karasöva

Can Trump’s communication be called communication? This question appeared in a discussion on communication theory and made me think again of Trump (I was rather ashamed of dedicating too much of my space in my daily mind wandering, so I was low-key proud of managing to stop thinking of that for a while, like unsubscribing from those annoying bloggers we all follow for no good reason).

There is a strong temptation to refuse to call Trump’s way of doing things “communication”, but I failed to find any substantial argument to back it up. Based on the basic principle of communication, “you cannot not communicate”, I consider Trump’s communication to be, well, communication. Why does it work? That is a harder question.

First of all, it has to be made clear that Trump is not inventing anything. His image is based on old and, as some would agree, rather outdated image, the main slogan of his campaign literally copies the slogan of Ronal Reagan from 1980. The surprising effect is not due to the message itself or the sender, but due to those receivers of the message who live in a totally different context full of discourse around modern tolerance, inclusivity, and correctness. But all the new is an old thing that is well forgotten. And the innovation is just an unusual combination of two existing things, in this case, maybe, assertive strong opinions without proofs and Twitter. Or the traditional image of power with a dash of nonsense. Let’s go deeper into that.

His image is a clear image of a successful businessman, with a strong flavor of masculine power, as was common in the 80s and before. Since he was (wrongly) included in the ranking of top wealthy people by Forbes, his image seems to have remained in these times. Surely it does not appeal to scholars of the 21st century, but there have never been enough scholars to win the election. Trump has built his personal brand mostly on effective communication since the reality was the opposite of that. He is the real person behind the anecdote: “How to make 1 billion? Well, take 2 billions…”. So, this image worked well in the US, the essentially capitalist country. The logic that a person who can run a huge business is able to run a huge country is obvious to people whose minds are wired with capitalist logic. More than that, the old school masculinity was appealing to the lower class part of the society, including, for instance, Latin Americans, whose traditional values outweighed a seemingly natural preference for pro-immigrant rhetoric. In addition, recent immigrants from socialist states like Cuba and Venezuela tend to choose the republican candidate as they developed an allergy to socialist rhetoric.

As a natural part of that image comes the tremendous confidence of Trump. He seems to never have a doubt, admit being wrong or apologize in his life. His tweets are known to be regularly labeled as “misleading”, but it means nothing compared to his confidence. In fact, confidence wins almost everything, including real facts and proofs. Trump called Obama the founder of ISIS and claimed to have done more for Black people than any other did, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln (not to mention Lincoln being racist as well). Fighting arguments of opponents is easy when you simply don’t listen to them, as Trump has proved during the last pre-election debates. Confidence is a timeless feature, common among the modern personal growth coaches as well as among the businessmen of the 80s.

So, returning to the communication itself. The power of Trump’s communication strategies lies in the advice from the basics of any communication: short concise messages repeated constantly. Politics is too complicated for most people: there are very few people who can pack it into accessible messages. They are called populists and show an example of a successful communication strategy.

Being clear and straightforward without politically correct formulations is appealing to people. Trump is not afraid to say aloud what many Americans think of but would not express openly. Trump avoids following speeches pre-written by the assistants, he does not hesitate to say exactly what he thinks. The same is true for his Twitter account, as he is known as one of few major politicians who make twits themselves. These non-polished partly improvised messages allow for an emotionally charged communication style. The style that turned out to be a trend in political communication of the 21st century (though it is not a new invention, of course).

Reagan’s slogan and oversized jacket are not the only things he took from the 80s. The intrinsic absurdity of Trump seems to come directly from the age of flourishing postmodernism. For example, let’s take a look at the “fake news” phenomenon. Trump has accused his opponents of making “fake news” a lot. He even claimed to have invented this term himself (which is not true). At the same time, pro-Trump media are famous for an extensive amount of fake news making up provocative and sometimes absurd messages.

Absurd is an ultimate feature that makes up the power of Trump’s communication. You can not fight absurd with arguments and statistics, it is almost impossible to fight. Trump manages to combine incompatible. He managed to win the election when the majority of citizens voted for another candidate. He managed to get on the list of top wealthy humans while having major losses. His image proves that everything is possible. That is an example of great communication, indeed.