Link to original article: LinkedIn

Trump is a Mirror

Sven Hughes

It wasn’t an accident. There was a reason Trump presented himself as a loud-mouthed bigot during the campaign - because it works. It’s the same reason Putin presents himself as an alpha nationalist adonis - because it works. It’s also the reason that the Brexit team focused on fear of immigration and Le Penn is heading towards first-round success. Simple sells. But it has to be the right kind of simple, based on heuristics and cognitive biases.

Heuristics are the motorways in the brain that link a certain stimulus to a certain response. The trick is simply to ensure that your messaging heuristic aligns with the audience’ existing cognitive biases. So, in the US: the mass audience believed that America is underperforming and unfair (the cognitive bias) and Trump positioned himself as the response to this stimulus – “making America great again”. He personified American values: assertive, confident, bold, direct and non-intellectual. He positioned himself as against the issues and institutions that his target audience felt were against them. This was an effortless heuristic that could be reinforced in the minds of the audience. A clear, predictable, stimulus and response – where Trump was unthinkingly perceived as the solution to the agreed unmet need:

Cognitive bias: America is underperforming and unfair.
Heuristic: Trump = great again.

This isn’t politics being dumbed down. Quite the opposite. Trump, Putin, Brexit: these are highly effective campaigns that are all built on the same fundamental truth: pattern-match the audience in an effortless way and you can use ‘Psychological Judo’ to get you over the winning line.

Trump isn’t the idiot. We, the audience, are perhaps the idiots. We are using our busy lives as an excuse not to engage with the arguments and issues. We skim the headlines and use these to reinforce our existing beliefs and biases. Sure, we tell ourselves that this effortless ‘keeping up with the news’ means we are well informed and well-rounded. But we are lying to ourselves. Rather, some very sophisticated strategic communications firms have worked out that the mass voting audiences around the globe are all rushing around so much that these little moments of Psychological Judo are in fact all that are necessary to achieve victory. A little headline nudge here, a little online nudge there. Because no one really wants to read the full story and get to grips with complicated facts – we’re too busy for that, right?

The added bonus of this kind of campaigning is that it feels very grassroots. This isn’t a top-down strategy because we all believe (and feel) these biases already. So, the audience is convinced that Trump is just reflecting what the people are really feeling and wanting – much more than any professional politician. Of course, this is just another subtle technique employed by the political stratcoms firms: to make the audience believe that they are in control of the agenda: candidate as facilitator.

It’s a simple equation that will get you elected in so many different countries around the world. It’s predictable – and it’s making our job in strategic communications a whole lot easier. There used to be the adage, ’never underestimate the audience’. This has never been more post-truth.

And it’s the harsh truth that non-US audiences and voters, seem unwilling to accept. That they are in no positon to judge Trump supporters. Just look at our tabloid press and Saturday night television habits in the UK. More people choose to engage with supposedly ‘base’ content and messaging, than choose to ignore it. Additionally, we two-screen view our way through even these programmes, dipping in and out with limited real cognitive engagement. Is it any wonder that the spin doctors have resorted to just reinforcing existing cognitive biases?

The real lesson from these various campaigns - especially the US vote - is that it is the audience that needs to change. And if they do, then the standard of our political discourse and representation will also change. Until then, the audience has limited reason to complain.

But what’s perhaps most depressing is that the supposed ‘engaged and enfranchised’ are doing nothing more than whine. In their own way they are the most to blame for current events.

The brains and talent to change our system of representation from within - whether in the form of new political parties, voting systems or engagement methods - prefer to just spend their time with hand-wringing and cynical commentary. It does wonders for the amount of invitations they receive to worthy whineathon dinner parties, and sod all to restore credibility to our political parties.

So, this is a call to action to every reader.

Please get up and be counted. Either turn your weary words into tangible constructive action – or engage with the issues beyond the headlines and turn out to vote (yes you, you ballot-box-dodging Remainers).

Go on, make it difficult for the political campaigning industry. Surprise the campaigners with your political engagement. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you are treated like McVoters, being served the political slops instead of genuinely progressive manifestos.

Meantime, would you like Freedom fries with that?