Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Trump as Communicator

(Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
The president has developed an aggressive, successful idiom

Never before have we had a president who so consumes the national conversation. Because of his style, most attribute Trump’s constant dominance of our public colloquy to an extraordinary, emotionally impulsive, and self-indulgent ego. That perspective may be right — but it is an assumption that made it hard to see how Trump could win even a primary, never mind a general election, and makes it hard now to fathom what he says or why he says it.

Let’s stipulate that he has a large ego — after all, who gets to be president without one? — and consider another hypothesis: that Trump’s outbursts and pugnaciousness are not random, thoughtless, and emotionally driven, but are calculated and intentional, reinforced by their useful by-products — for example, chilling potential criticism, intimidating opposition, or successfully negotiating better deals — and learned from years of success in business, media, and now politics.

If Trump’s public persona were simply driven by a need to be the center of attention, one would expect him to be a narcissist in his off-camera life too. Certainly he’s no angel, and many see much they don’t like. Yet by multiple accounts, the private Donald Trump is not what one would expect from the tabloid reporting. He’s often described as charming — even by those who didn’t want to like him or expect to be impressed — an attentive listener, a loyal friend, deeply interested in his lowest-level employees’ lives and opinions, a great father, and someone generous to and concerned about others. Even his ex-wives seem to like him.

It seems likely that, if his speech were driven by emotional impulse, his repeated and — we were assured during his campaign — doom-guaranteeing “missteps” would have sunk his candidacy. Instead, repeated predictions of Trump’s certain demise were proved wrong. Did all his attacks work? No, and some certainly backfired. But many hit home. Had these been random, emotional broadsides, their failure rate would have been far higher, and he would have been hoist by his own petard long ago.

If impulse and emotion were driving what he targets and how he tweets, his barbs would not so often be “kill shots” — a term first applied by the ever-insightful Scott Adams — e.g., “low-energy Jeb.” Moreover, the issues Trump chooses to champion would not all have consistently been shown to command public support.

One could ascribe to demagogic ego Trump’s long-running feuds with journalists who have been critical of him. Alternatively, those feuds could be part of a strategy to always be on offense, to solidify an intimidating reputation that will make others think twice before tangling with him. Perhaps it is both. But the important thing to consider is that the strategy has huge utility and is intentional.

More important, were his vanity in charge, we wouldn’t see Trump repeatedly reverse tone with neck-whipping speed when it suits his purpose to pivot from aggressive attack to gracious conciliation.

These are clues that his bravado and bluster are an act. Trump has learned that intimidation, misdirection, controlling the conversation, graciousness, and conciliation all have their uses.

If, despite appearances, what drives the tweeter in chief is not uncontrolled emotional impulses and self-gratification, what is it?

Try calculated persuasion — done to manage his brand, manipulate the media, and maneuver the conversation, all with one goal: to win. The benchmarks for a win, his promises to the American people, were laid out in his inaugural address.

Integral to winning is Trump’s embrace of new technology to directly communicate with the public and show that the mainstream media no longer control the narrative — he does. The old standard-bearers of journalism flung everything they could at him and were shocked to see that he fed on it, fed on them, and grew stronger. Expect Trump to continue during his presidency to rely on many of the tactics that served him so well in the campaign.

On a scale far different from that of any past president, President Trump will work to control the conversation and speak directly to voters. He’ll do so, first, by telling us preemptively what will happen, and then claiming credit when his predictions are borne out. Trump is a master at framing stories before they happen, as he so successfully did with media bias, terrorism, the immigration crisis, and Brexit. Recall that during the campaign, Trump was the only candidate to provide a list of potential Supreme Court nominees and to promise to pick from the list. Then he did just that, and now he can say, “See, I did what I said I would do.” Or consider his labeling of the media as dishonest. When they prove him right, people see it, and he takes credit for pegging them accurately. Trump knows that when people are looking for something, they are more likely to see it, or see its absence. When he frames it for them, they’ll see it from his perspective.

Trump will use Twitter and other social media proactively more than reactively in the future. He will now have the awesome resources of the presidency at his disposal to amplify everything he does and says, and not only will he use Twitter to punch back at his critics in the media, but he will also use it to punch preemptively, and, more than anything else, to reward, as with this tweeted praise: “Miami-Dade Mayor drops sanctuary policy. Right decision. Strong!!” With the right amount of carrots, and the knowledge of a very powerful stick, management by tweet can be most effective.

Trump has said he will keep his own Twitter account, and therefore his own audience, as president. We can expect that he will use every means to bypass the usual media filters, occasionally even calling in to TV and radio shows and thereby avoiding editing and interpretation. He will tell the American people that they don’t need the biased elites and pundits telling them “what Trump meant.”

Rather, he will let Americans themselves interpret what he says. He will use local and targeted media in areas of the country where his most loyal constituents live, and he’ll rely less on the urban, liberal media outlets that he perceives have a history of bias against him or don’t represent the views of all Americans. After all, why empower “the opposition”?

Trump will communicate at lightning speed and with high frequency. While the media, dotting their “i”s, crossing their “t”s, and defending against “fake news,” respond more slowly, Trump will already be on to the next thing. He’ll be entrepreneurial, action-oriented, and constantly testing which versions of his message work best. Media are already trying to slow him down by expressing concern over a potential hacking of his Twitter account and the inherent security risks of a president’s communicating important issues seemingly impulsively on social media. In response, expect President Trump to just go . . . faster!

Trump knows that what matters most is not policy but what people see with their own eyes, in their own neighborhoods and lives. Trump will use storytelling, and we will see him highlight lots of examples of people positively affected by his presidency.

One of the things they should expect to see, and see a lot, is Trump doubling down. We saw it during the campaign. He never backed off from a controversy and often ratcheted them up. We saw it more recently with his refusal to dial back rhetoric about making Mexico pay for a wall on its border, even to the point of scuttling a planned summit with Mexico. And we are even seeing it preemptively, as in Trump’s saying that he’d be fine with the Senate’s using the “nuclear option” if needed to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. This refusal to back down is one more way of conveying that he will do what he says he’ll do, and normal Washington impediments won’t stop him.

Finally, the Left and the media will continue to portray Trump’s behavior as chaotic and outrageous. Trump in turn is already using their own arguments against them, describing as outrageous the Democrats’ theatrical obstruction of his nominees. Who will win this fight? People will tire of the perpetual outrage from the media and progressives. They will see Trump’s actions as Trump being Trump — which is what they are. How outrageous is something when it happens all the time? We can see the Left’s fear of the public’s acceptance of Trump by their aggressive effort to fight his “normalization.” They will fail, not least because the more they discuss him, the more “normal” he will become.

Either Trump is the luckiest SOB on the planet to have achieved what he has, or there is a method in his madness. My money is on the latter.

– Heather R. Higgins is the president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice.

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