The author has declared no conflicts of interest in writing this opinion piece, aside from an interest in US politics and political strategy analysis.
Image source: NBC News @ Evan Vucci
If you read this title, and you are here to entertain yourself with some more flaws of Donald Trump, then you would be disappointed. But don’t get me wrong -- this article is not at all a form of support nor hatred towards the man. The name “Donald Trump” has very much been associated with emotion-triggering comments rather than a pragmatic and three-dimensional analysis. And by three-dimensional, I mean that there is a difference between a problem, politics and the strategy, despite the interconnection thereof.
So here, my intention is to analyse Trump’s political strategies, without feeding it with "good" or "bad" politics. Although in saying that, quite ironically, this writing is somewhat infused with democratic undertone; which might mean that there is a set framework to what distinguishes the "good" from the "bad". Although that is the case, it is not the central point of this article.
So, what is the central point, then? That is a good question. Here, I intend to analyse whether Donald Trump’s political strategies create polarisation, or that he is simply the by-product of it. For this, I will draw key examples from the 2016 elections. But before then, let’s start with this key premise:
“(…) the effects of political communications of whatever kind are determined not by the content of the message alone, or even primarily, but by the historical context in which they appear, especially the political environment prevailing at any given time.” – McNair, 2017.
By this presupposition, I believe there that are three components central to construing a proper context for this analysis: the political climate at the given time, the electoral environment, and the constituents. Of course, these are not as siloed as they sound; and therefore, an appropriate simplification of these is rather warranted.
So, please allow me to do so in three straightforward points here.
1.Politics: what politics?
Critiques on the US’ political milieu often describes it as a trivialisation: a degrading of democracy into a mere marketisation of “winning the race” (also see Perloff, 1998). Of course, we can try and theorise all we want about what causes this -- from declining political trust, the media environment, or more recently the big tech, and so forth -- but it surely takes more than just one historical component to make the current state. What we know for sure is this: democratic politics has shifted from "rational choice" to a trade of identity and sentiments. If politicians are not only incentivised, but also forced, to enter a show to gain the popularity capital, then economically speaking, how do we ensure that the benefits of pursuing public value is higher than merely speaking malarkey about the rival’s vulnerability? To what point is popular vote not equal public value? This brings us to our next point.
2.The election: zero-sum game
In a bi-party democratic system such as the US, the elections are undoubtably perceived as a major celebration of ‘public choice’. Note that here, the elections are often seen as a winner-takes-all contestation; which follows that campaigning is an integral part of political strategy. In saying that, the hitherto US presidential campaign has exceptionally been costly. This is noteworthy as it informs us that running for the office is not an entirely accessible luxury. It also follows that the gatekeeping agency between governing leaders and the governed are not only informational but is also most probably a result of wealth gap. The implication of this is severe: that a political victory is an object to be bought rather than publicly held accountable.
3.The electorates: Trump’s target market
Now this one is probably very contingent to the last two points, but it surely is most critical in answering the overarching key question. If we are to assess Trump’s political strategies, it would be absolutely weightless if we omit the significance of his addressees. Of course, in an ideal world where I would do a normal research, I would outline an exhaustive description of US’ geopolitics in relation to their demographics. Nonetheless, since I promised I would simplify, here is the outlook of Trump’s largest constituency in a nutshell: Caucasian males without college degrees who identify themselves as Christians. Two things to note here. First, notice that I highlighted the word, ‘largest’, which means that they do not represent all of Trump’s supporters, nor that all of his supporters belong in the abovementioned demography. Second, my personal instinct tells me to also highlight this: in the 21st century politics, pointing out a specific demographic (such that I did) is often regarded as an accusation or denunciation; but here, the evidence is pragmatic, and should not imply any assumptive speculations towards the group.
When I dropped the words “Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign”, you must have sketched a picture in your head some prominent catchphrases — or, dare I say, notorious. We are familiar with his ideas of 'Build the Wall', 'lock her up', and the exceptionally eminent 'Make America Great Again'. Sure, the very reason why these phrases are well-known is simply because it appeals to emotions -- whether negatively or positively -- you pick. But one thing for sure is this: the fact that it catches your sentiments – so much that you remember it by heart and associate him with them means that his political communication somehow works. Is it intentional? Take your guess.
Whether or not it is intentional, however, these phrases are not of random utterance. There is a particularly deep-rooted tactical theme to what the media often describes as a complete ‘gibberish’. In describing this, I borrow the campaign analysis framework of Austermuehl’s (2020), which I find very articulate and clever.
To fully grasp this theme, let us go back a little further to the 17th century. In the New England church history, the Puritan Christian ministers often preached sermons using a particular framework called the jeremiad preaching. As clearly stated in the title, this framework echoes the literary structure of the biblical prophet Jeremiah in the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations. This literary device denotes a somewhat straightforward message to Israel. First, it denounces Israel’s brokenness, led astray by the false prophets, and as a consequence, judgement is approaching. Second, a saviour will later come to repair what is broken. And third, that the saviour will lead them back to the Promised Land -- a land where they will return to victory. In outlining this, I should mention that jeremiad preaching is not to be confused with regular Evangelical preaching. The 17th century New England preachers often used this framework with the assumption that New England was somewhat parallel to the Old Testament Israel. Scholars often critique this framework as being distinct; emphasising on the corporate privilege of Christians based on morality: that the freedom to live free is based on whether or not you are ‘moral’ -- the very opposite of the regular Evangelical Christian preaching.
Now, if you have yet to predict where this was going, let me clarify. Donald Trump’s political strategy in 2016 mimics that of jeremiad preaching and turns it into a political narrative that Austermuehl terms as the jeremiad campaign. Just as Jeremiah proclaimed the destruction of Israel as the Promised Land, Trump addressed what he saw as a collapsed nation of the US. Of course, in juxtaposition to jeremiad preaching, Trump often positions the current overall system as ‘false prophets’: the source of brokenness that have led the US to destruction. This is not new -- we often hear his undermining democratic systems with the words like ‘fake news’ or the use of words like ‘crime’ and ‘immigrants’ in the same sentence, imposing blame of destruction towards the ‘other’. He positions himself as a victim in the world where nothing can be trusted -- and his self-victimisation supposedly elevates the legitimacy of his standing. Have you ever wondered why, when every other politician communicates through the mainstream media, Trump uses Twitter as his main outlet instead, bashing the exact same outlets other politicians use as their stage? So, then it should make us question whether the negative portrayals of Trump in the mainstream media would delegitimise him or would actually strengthen his very point of political narrative? In saying that, would both positive and negative engagement towards his communications falls according to his curated plan?
This sub-narrative sets the ground for his positioning in the story. It won’t be a jeremiad campaign if there is no mention of solution. So, here is where he distorts the literary device even further by putting himself as the saviour from the destruction. You may have heard him numerous times say, “nobody knows this better than I do”, “I am the most patriotic American”, “I have done more than anyone else”, or “I’m smarter than they are”. He puts himself as the only one worthy person to redeem the US. This proposition is critical. We know that political communications have become a market of identity, but this campaigning strategy becomes, not only a drive of fear and terror, but also fear of spiritual judgements. By that, I mean that there is an implicit message that, if you do not vote for Trump, you are choosing spiritual destruction. The alternative, of course, is that he would bring you back to the Promised Land or rather, “make America great again”. As you may have heard, critics often see the cultural and racial hints to this slogan. Unfortunately, his idea of the Promised Land is not that of spiritual redemption, but of political redemption, alluding to the return towards the ‘white Christian’ America. Here, we see that Trump strategically takes Christianity -- not as an ideology, but as an identity -- to use as a weapon, an instrument of power, to control the public to enter his game.
We see that Donald Trump’s political strategy feeds on the very divisive nature of humanity. Plato has theorised this a long time ago; and unfortunately, the long-recorded history of politics has proven that he was right. But in saying that, I might have answered the question of this article, haven’t I?
I think the trivialisation of politics has made us underestimate the power of Trump’s campaign. The depictions of Trump’s infamous pouting or his incoherent statements in the media have primed us to think that, as a man, he is… dumb. But is he, really? This article clearly disagrees. I have yet to see a more targeted campaigning strategy than this one. If you look closely to the political context, it entirely sets the tone to whether Trump’s strategy pays off. He takes what has existed and turns it into his personal tactic. But if your question is: is it a manipulative strategy? That is a whole another question. But a strategy is only a raw sketch on a piece of paper without an accommodating environment. Donald Trump is Donald Trump not only because he is, but because the US lets him be or rather, encourages him to be.