Suddenly Donald Trump’s face loomed over the delegates, tanned, jaw set, and a story high.
From the giant video screen on the Republican National Convention stage Mr. Trump thanked everyone for nominating him as the GOP presidential pick. The film – shown Tuesday in Cleveland after the official roll call vote – was short. Parts were clearly ad-libbed. When Trump began to speak, his sentences were looping and repetitive.
“The party seal, I mean, what we did, getting the party’s nomination, I’ll never forget it. It’s something I will never, ever forget,” he said.
Trump expressed pride in his accomplishment and said it was an honor to be on a ticket with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Then he outlined things he foresaw accomplishing in the Oval Office. How? He didn’t say.
“We’re going to bring back our jobs. We’re going to rebuild our depleted military.... We’re going to have strong borders. We’re going to get rid of ISIS, and we’re going to restore law and order, we have to restore, and quickly, law and order among many. And just so many other things,” Trump said.
Here’s a thought sparked by watching this presentation and its rapturous response: It’s not just the border proposal or the possible Muslim ban. Donald Trump’s extraordinary victory in the Republican presidential primaries was due in part to the way he communicates. His words, his gestures, his expressions, his emphasis – all are uniquely suited to the pace and attention span of our social-media saturated age.
Brevity is the soul of Twitter
He’s brief. He’s punchy. He’s repetitive, repetitive, repetitive. Sentences aren’t completed or take exits toward unexpected destinations. Multi-syllable words are kept to a minimum. Effective!
Perhaps most importantly, details are thin on the ground. He cedes nothing to those who say his statements aren’t true. If his supporters like what he says, he sticks with it, even if the mainstream media yells “false!” until it’s blue in the pixels.
This may be an approach well tailored for a time when news comes in snippets on Facebook and Snapchat, and our social communities are increasingly sorted into like-minded groups. Voters are increasingly seeking out their own information, instead of having it delivered via newsprint to their doorstep. They’re not looking for others to disprove what they think they know.
“Trump is brilliant in manipulating – and I mean ‘manipulating’ as a positive – the new media, the social media of the day,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “There is no discussion on Twitter. The way you win an argument on Twitter is, you say it again, and you say it in capital letters.”
We live in an era when the old order is withering away. It is not just that newspapers are suddenly as anachronistic as manual shifts, and network anchors now mere mortals. Trust in the concept of authorities, of experts whose experience and knowledge is worth drawing upon as a guide through life, is itself in sharp decline. According to Gallup polls, Americans’ confidence in their major institutions has been falling for decades, with the exception of the military. It’s now near historic lows.
The media ranks near the bottom of these rankings. Trust in Congress is lower, which is cold comfort to old scribes. Was journalism ever the arbiter of what was right and wrong, truth and lies? If it was, it isn’t now.
“Fact-checking by mainstream media organizations has no effect. We are objects of suspicion, accused of hiding facts,” said Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, in a Temple University commencement address this spring.
Meanwhile the media business is atomizing. Digital youngsters like BuzzFeed and Breitbart and Vox and FiveThirtyEight are crowding into political coverage. Non-news giants like Facebook and Google control the means of much news distribution. Every man is an island, and also his (or her) own editor, choosing friends and clicking on links in a way that eventually produces an idiosyncratic structure of news sources that rolls past their eyes every day.
Other politicians make efforts to adapt to this new world. They all have Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. Some are even good. But on the whole the way politicians communicate still seems aimed at another age. Their speeches and news releases resonate with the rhythms of the 20th century.
Celebrity Trump knows better. Look at his famous tweets – his headshot avatar squints into the distance, conveying the strength of Churchill, or perhaps a buffalo. The pattern is often the same – a declaration, an explanation, and then an emotion. It’s already spawned countless imitations and will live on in cultural memory far past November. “The crooked media is lying again. Their business model is failing anyway. Sad!”
At rallies, Trump’s speeches aren’t so much addresses as they are rambling monologues. They evoke not knowledge, in the sense of knowledge about what Trump might do or believe, as much as they produce emotions.
What do you hear when you listen to Trump?
“I hear a lot of anger and a lot of fear,” says Shana Gadarian, an expert in political communication and psychology and associate professor at Syracuse University in New York.
Emotion gets people to pay attention. It can heighten anxieties, and Trump’s rhetoric certainly does that. It perhaps increases his supporters’ fears about their economic place in the world, and the others – the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims – that they believe constitute threats to that position.
Once people become anxious, they want to hear about solutions to their perceived problems, and that is where Trump’s flat pronouncements enter the picture. We’ll handle that. We’re looking at that. We’ll defeat ISIS. We’ll bring back jobs. We’ll win. There’ll be so much winning, you’ll get tired of winning.
“Trump’s really, really good at getting media attention,” says Dr. Gadarian. “That doesn’t come from having a 20-point plan on immigration. It comes from making broad, dramatic claims about the state of the world.”
Other politicians aren’t necessarily walking Brookings Institution seminars. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, celebrated for his love of policy and determination to push a legislative agenda, produces proposals that often leave out much of the explanation of how things might come to pass. There’s nothing wrong with this. Big changes in US government are generally the product of lots of people struggling over time. You can’t necessarily say in advance what that legislation or regulation will look like.
Still, Trump is unusual even by these low standards. He says we’re going to be strong, we’re going to defeat our enemies, or we’re going to secure the borders. None of these are actually policies, points out Dr. Engel of Southern Methodist University.
“What we would like to see is what happens in the next sentence, the next paragraph, how these things will be implemented,” says Engel. “Trump, even by the standards of politicians, gives us remarkably little.”
One speech, 12 fact-checkers
Trump’s diction adds to the challenge. At rallies or other less-scripted occasions he often does not finish his sentences, points out Engel. That makes his public appearances remarkably difficult to transcribe. He starts down one path, almost gets there, and then veers away toward another. Thoughts aren’t quite finished. Circles aren’t quite closed. Implications aren’t altogether drawn.
This allows listeners to fill in the words themselves with whatever language they like. It also “allows him to go closer to the edge of acceptable language and acceptable discourse and have an easy retreat,” says Engel.
Not that he always takes it. The easy retreat, that is. The words “Trump” and “double-down” often appear in the same sentence. When fact-checkers say he has said something false or misleading his response is often to ignore that and repeat it. Continually. As in, to this day. Trump still says he opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, for instance. There’s no evidence that’s the case.
That approach is very hard for journalists to handle. There can be so many challenging Trump assertions in an appearance that it’s impossible to follow up on each at the moment. Last month it took 12 Associated Press reporters to fact-check one Trump speech.
Does Trump believe he’s always right? Or does he know he isn’t, but thinks acknowledging error is weakness? That’s a question only he or his inner circle can answer. One clue may lie in the fact that his real business genius appears to be marketing. The Trump brand is his product as much as, if not more than, skyscrapers and golf courses.
Some great presidents have been skilled marketers. Ronald Reagan comes to mind. John F. Kennedy as well. Marketing can be an important political skill. It rallies supporters to believe in your message and mission.
But in marketing there is a fine line between normal puffery and untruths.
It’s an art where “you can create your own reality,” says Engel.