The New York Times article “The 258 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter” is a pretty good indicator of the level of discourse of the Republican Party’s nominee for US president in November’s election. Trump’s insults often read like the work of a child, but I want to describe him as an “orator” because people are making a mistake when they dismiss him so glibly. Trump uses simple language and playground insults in his campaign rallies – but this does not mean that he is not a highly skilled speaker.
It was partly his rhetorical skill that helped him defy the odds to become the Republican candidate and – despite articles prophesying his doom – a recent poll shows he has reduced his opponent Hillary Clinton’s lead. Assuming that between now and November he does not, as many hope, “implode” the presidential election may be closer than many think. I want to try to set out why he is so effective.
Timing in delivery is always important – and of course Trump is practised at that through his television experience. But timing also matters on a grander scale – and 2016 has been the perfect, unhappy and unholy year for Trump to enter stage right. Disillusionment with US politics and the desire for an anti-establishment figure reflects entrenched divisions: fault lines on immigration, LGBTQI rights, gun control and the environment combine with the sense that a Washington elite governs under the thumb of wealthy lobbyists.
With important differences, timing also matters given current parallels with 1929: financial crisis, crushing austerity, unemployment, wage depression and impoverishment. This ushers in distrust of elites, collective grievance and a search for scapegoats. Simplistic explanations, grandiose promises and establishment bashing – Trump’s trademarks – are able to flourish in this environment.
Boundaries between the two US parties – and in the UK between the two sides in the EU referendum – can be traced in anti-immigration slogans: build a wall, we want our country back, protect our borders, breaking point. It is because of, not despite, their kindergarten simplicity, that these bite-size slogans are extremely powerful.
This is not because of their semantic content – whether they “make sense” or not. They are coded rallying cries. Instead of a war of words, both sides of the Atlantic are facing a war of identities. Attacking slogans because they lack detail misses the point. Similarly, seeing Trump’s policies (build a wall, ban Muslims, etc) as actual “policy” is mistaken. They are effective partly because they are wildly unlike conventional campaign policies and “business as usual”.
Some speakers are effective because they take control of the topics being debated: establishing a frame of reference or setting an agenda. But Trump breaks the rules in a campaign fuelled by his “You’re fired!” brand of sensationalism that continually transforms questions about detail and policy into battles of personality and identity.
Clinton could forensically dismantle Trump on policy, but unfortunately for her camp, Trump has turned this – and perhaps subsequent election years – into a smack-talk summer. Trump’s insults tag his rivals using the same formula that brands “baddies” in WWE wrestling: “Crazie Bernie” Sanders, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz and, of course, “Crooked Hillary”.
Reducing it to the absurd, his opponents collapse Trump’s experience to 14 seasons of The Apprentice. But while it is repeatedly ridiculed as being irrelevant for discharging the job of president, people miss the ways it is relevant to campaigning for the job of president. The Apprentice gave Trump household recognition and the aura of success. Just as importantly, it also provided the ideal training for the insult-powered cartoon campaign that nobody expected – and nobody was prepared for.
It gave us perhaps the only campaign Trump could run. Well-placed fears about the value of this training have been motivating Barack Obama to caution repeatedly that this election “isn’t reality TV” and to try to shift focus to Clinton as the most qualified presidential candidate in history.
Whether this is cutting through is questionable. Obama derided Trump’s “credentials and breadth of experience” at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It wiped a smile off Trump’s face but five years on the message doesn’t seem to have stuck.
5. Controlling the news cycle
Trump seems to be able to feed journalists great stories at will. An outlandish quote – such as his bizarre clarification in February: “I don’t like fighting with the Pope” – spawns eye-catching headlines and makes it easy to generate copy or clicks.
This has given free fuel to a campaign far less well funded than Clinton’s. Last week witnessed a change in tactics by Clinton: a direct attack on Trump, slamming his “racist ideology” in a speech which name-checked her opponent no less than 80 times.
Conventionally, politicians use “my opponent”, to deny their rival’s name airtime. But naming Trump enabled Clinton to paint him as separate from his party, underlining contrasts with moderate Republicans and previous Republican candidates. Name-checks placed him in the company of extremists. It was professional, brilliant, skillful, forensic. So what did Trump do? He pulled a scandal out of his pocket – calling Clinton a “bigot” and sparking another feud with a prominent breakfast TV anchor.
This reverse attack can be very effective partly because it creates a false symmetry: Clinton says Trump is racist, Trump says Clinton is a bigot – they are as bad as each other. It is an age-old playground technique.
Earlier this year, the warning was issued that “ridiculing Brexiters is a sure way to lose the argument”. Clinton supporters make a parallel mistake if they overlook or ridicule what makes Trump successful. What Trump the orator can do may not be sustainable, but it is remarkable – and terrifying.