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Think the Trump train is running out of steam? Well, with his campaign for 2020 underway, we need to accept an uncomfortable truth – that he does it better than his rivals.
In June of last year, comedian Stephen Colbert eviscerated Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, labelling it as the campaign “that has never stopped” and “for those of you who were hoping that now that he’s president his tone would change, last night was a swift kick in the old hopey-changey.”
Colbert’s monologue was punctuated by clips of Trump’s first stop in Orlando, with the crowd dusting off the anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric, loudly chanting “lock her up”. This tone was echoed by activist/documentarian Michael Moore, who noted that he watched the same demonstration, but had a slightly different take.
I watched the whole thing last night. I know no one wants to waste that kind of time even looking at him, but not wanting to see the enormity of the fight ahead doesn’t make it go away. He hasn’t lost one inch of his fired-up insane base. Are u ready?
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) June 19, 2019
Colbert may have played the same truth for laughs, but Moore is closer to the mark. Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. Despite the Mueller Report, despite surviving impeachment, Donald made to his re-election campaign. We’re now on his turf, and that spells trouble, as there are three dimensions to Donald’s campaign strategy:
- Trump understands the media echo-system better than any politician alive and knows how to manipulate its cycle and pattern of behaviour to full effect;
- Trump deciphers the electoral “rules of the game”, identifies those activities most likely to generate a political dividend, or those the absence of which have ruined previous campaigns, and then applies himself doggedly to these and only these activities;
- Trump instinctively knows that political messages must be limited, simple, declarative, emotional and consistent.
Manipulating the media
From the moment Trump announced his candidacy for president in June of 2015, he consumed all the political oxygen in the room. We can only speculate if Trump knew in advance the effect that saying “(the Mexicans are) bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime; they’re rapists,” would have on the Republican primary season he soon obliterated. However, there is no doubt once he saw its effect, Donald refined this tactic and employed it relentlessly and ruthlessly.
The Trump method is to time perfectly the delivery of a statement, equal part horrific and equal part defensible. Horrific in the sense that its mere existence triggers a visceral and vociferous reaction, defensible in so far as a plausible defence can be mounted. Instantly, the media turns apoplectic, asserting the utterance is a “dog whistle” to the least desirable parts of the electorate. Wall-to-wall coverage ensues, offering a smorgasbord of pundits rotating through a pinwheel of complexions. The media fetishises the lack of tone with pornographic delight, squeals about the absence of probity, decency and manners, and bemoans the overturning, erasure and erosion of democratic norms.
Note, when it’s wall-to-wall Trump, it’s nothing-to-nothing anyone else. That’s the point. Trump has learned something the media is incapable or unwilling to see. His outrages “disappear” his political opponents. The media cycle is a zero-sum game. If CNN is talking about Trump, CNN is not talking about Democratic policies, prescriptions, ideals or advantages.
Case in point: Trump declaring he is a nationalist during a rally in Houston, Texas on the night of Monday the 22nd of October. This one word set off a firestorm of “negative” media coverage, the likes of which ultimately redounds to Trump’s benefit. The following day, not a single MSNBC, CNN, ABC or NBC “hourly show” avoided discussing the outrage, or missed convening a panel to revel in its impermissibility. Watch CNN’s Don Lemon for a sense of the reaction:
Lemon begins by saying how important the upcoming midterms are, then proceeds to spend the remainder of his show talking about Trump while presenting nothing substantive whatsoever about the Democrats.
This is tragic, since (the US being a non-mandatory voting environment) voters need a reason to get out of the house, go for a drive, wait in line at a polling station for over an hour, and punch that ballot behind the little curtain. People vote affirmatively. They vote to affirm a candidate, affirm a policy, or to affirm the denial of a candidate. Now one might argue that the media is providing fodder for the third motivation: getting people out of their armchairs to deny Trump. In reality, in non-mandatory voting domains, “protest” voting behaviour is far less prevalent and nonetheless requires the voter to believe the alternative is worth voting for. As we saw in 2016, people that didn’t like Trump and didn’t like Hillary stayed home. By gorging themselves on Trump-rage the media offers little positive inducement for people to vote for the Democrats. Hating Trump simply isn’t enough. Therefore, Trump’s method of media domination has a “depressing effect” on turnout.
The current US electorate is constituted: 26% Republicans (GOP); 27% Democrats (DEM); 44% Independents (IND).
Everyone always forgets about the Independents. They ought not.
Trump’s statement, “I’m a nationalist,” equal parts horrific and defensible, invariably makes Democrats vote Democrat, Republicans vote Republican, but it also has the effect of giving Republicans a slight edge with Independents. The statement’s defensibility generates this electoral dividend. The average unaligned, non-partisan, non-tribal voter is permitted to think: “All Trump meant was he loves America and wants to put America first. America is a nation. It’s our nation… He’s a nationalist…that’s not so bad. I kind of get what he’s saying… And you know what, I want to put America first too. Maybe I’m a nationalist.”
Watch Trump explain:
On the other hand, there’s little reason for an Independent to vote Democrat. It was common during the 2016 general election – and has been in the two years since – to hear non-aligned voters say, “The Democrats don’t really stand for anything. They don’t have any policies or any new ideas. All they do is complain and march and wail about things not going their way.”
Watch this typical critique of the Democrats:
The truth of this critique notwithstanding, who can blame an Independent voter for thinking this way? Given the media doesn’t offer their audience much affirmative motivation to vote Democrat – at least not while Trump is saying he’s a nationalist – Independent voters commonly think this way. And that’s the rub.
Trump’s manipulation of the media through manufactured and deliberate outrages is one reason he’s the most effective political campaigner for two generations. As a technique it’s diabolical. Trump and his agenda dominate the airwaves, saturate the newsprint, and thus extinguish his opponent’s opportunity to advance a positive message to the electorate. Provided Trump’s statement is ostensibly defensible, the routine media dog-pile, designed to shame the electorate away from voting for him, merely has the effect of further entrenching partisans, without offering a positive inducement to unaligned voters.