Tuesday,25 April, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Tuesday,25 April, 2017
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s campaign secrets

With the US presidential elections approaching in November, Republican Party candidate Donald Trump has been using public fear and anger to gain wide voter support, writes Ahmed Mahdi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Don’t ask people what they THINK about something you’ve said. Instead, always ask them how they FEEL about it. People buy emotionally and justify it logically” – The Trump University Playbook

This is probably the same logic that Donald Trump is using in his presidential campaign. The secret to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s success seems to largely rely on “the feelings of the listener, especially fear and anger,” and definitely not on facts or logic.

A Rasmussen poll on 4 August showed that Trump, the Republican Party nominee for president of the United States in the 2016 elections that will take place in November, is four points behind his Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton at 40 per cent to 44 per cent. Although the poll marked a drop to 72 per cent of Republican support for Trump, that drop is partly compensated for by Trump’s gain among independents that do not belong to either party.

“Trump once again leads Clinton among voters not affiliated with either party at 41 per cent to 29 per cent after Clinton held a five-point lead a week ago,” Rasmussen said.

The headway Trump is making in the presidential race has stumped experts everywhere and provoked a sea of research on Trump’s techniques and language. A quick look at Trump’s professional background may tell us a lot about his campaigning technique.

Trump is a well-known American media and real-estate tycoon who opened a university and called it Trump University. It is not really a university, however: the New York attorney general has repeatedly warned that this institution is breaking the law by calling itself a “university”.  

It is an institution that started operating in 2005 and claims to offer “graduate programmes, post-graduate programmes, and doctorate programmes.” But it can be better defined as a company that claims to be selling Trump’s insights into how to make money in the real-estate sector.

Despite claiming to sell Trump’s business secrets, it is worth noting that Trump himself has never actually reviewed the courses given at Trump University. The courses were written by a company which specialises in motivational speaking. There is a manual that provides directions to Trump University instructors on what to tell students called the Trump University Playbook (notice the name “Playbook”). At one point, the Playbook says “don’t ask people what they THINK about something you’ve said. Instead, always ask them how they FEEL about it. People buy emotionally and justify it logically.”

This is a sentence that deserves attention. Donald Trump has been repeatedly described as racist, childish, lying, a show-off, lacking in political experience, lacking in real policies to solve the problems of the American people, and generally unqualified to hold the presidency of the United States. This sentence from the Trump University Playbook, which tells Trump University instructors to stimulate the feelings of their clients instead of their logical thoughts, could be behind the techniques Trump is using with American voters.

Indeed, Brian Fallon, press secretary of Hillary Clinton, has written that “Trump University is devastating because it’s a metaphor for his whole campaign: promising hardworking Americans ways to get ahead, but all based on lies.”

Many Americans are in desperate straits because of their country’s declining economic performance. Trump is using this feeling of desperation, and he is playing on their feelings and emotions, not their logical thoughts, to lure them into thinking that he can offer solutions to their problems.

USING FEAR AND ANGER: According to US motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Trump has gone far in the presidential campaign because he has been exploiting the emotions of his supporters to his advantage, especially fear and anger, according to Robbins “very powerful motivators in our society today.”

American language expert Sandra Folk agrees, saying that Trump uses simple but exaggerated language to stir people’s feelings and emotions, unlike the other candidates who use complicated “statesman-like words that can confuse or bore people.”

Similarly, Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip series, was recently interviewed by the Washington Post and said that Trump knows that “humans are deeply irrational” and that he is using this irrationality to “completely ignore reality and rational thinking in favour of emotional appeal.” “People vote based on emotions. Period,” Adams said.

Abdallah Schleifer, director of the Centre for American Studies at the Future University in Egypt and professor emeritus of journalism at the American University in Cairo, agrees. Schleifer said in an e-mail that Trump raises social justice issues, but “combines those issues with openly racist appeals that emotionally resonate with an embittered sector of the white American working and middle classes.”  

Trump directs these feelings of fear and anger against minorities and anyone who disagrees with him. In public statements against Mexicans, African-Americans and Muslims, Trump has been using minorities as a scapegoat on which to blame all the troubles of the United States. The people who support Trump (especially white American men) find comfort in such speeches.

For example, Trump has portrayed Mexicans as criminals who come to America to commit crimes. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crimes, they’re rapists,” he said. This is despite reports that say that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than those who are already citizens.

Trump has also tweeted fake, exaggerated figures on homicides committed by African-American people. His source was the San Francisco Crime Statistics Bureau, a government agency which does not exist. He also welcomed the endorsement of David Duke, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the American organisation famous for its racism and crimes against African-Americans since the 19th century. When confronted on CNN by anchor Jake Tapper, Trump denied that he knew Duke and refused to reject his endorsement or condemn the Klan, even though there is evidence that Trump has known Duke since 2000.

Naturally, Muslims have not escaped Trump’s remarks. Following the attacks in Paris in November 2015, Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. In March 2016, Trump said on CNN that “I think Islam hates us. There is a tremendous hatred there.” He also called for killing not just the Islamist terrorists, but their families as well.

The intelligence community in Washington is clearly against the measures suggested by Trump against Muslims, as such measures would serve as propaganda and recruitment tools for the Islamic State (IS) group and support the IS view that Islam and the West cannot live together peacefully.

THE WALL WITH MEXICO: Based on this fear-mongering against minorities, Trump made his most significant promise to date on the wall with Mexico.

 One of the controversial promises that he repeatedly gives his supporters is his claim that following his election he will work on building a wall along the Mexican-American border to stop Mexicans from entering US territory and that he will make Mexico pay the cost of building this wall. This promise has fallen on receptive ears among many Trump supporters as a silver bullet that could stop Mexicans from allegedly stealing their jobs and committing crimes in American neighbourhoods.

However, experts doubt the feasibility of building the wall. First, if the length of this wall is about 1,000 miles and its height 35 feet tall, its construction will cost about US$25 billion in addition to annual maintenance costs. Second, there seems to be no way to convince Mexico to pay this amount of money, especially since many Mexican officials, including Mexican ex-presidents, have stated that Mexico will not pay for the wall and Washington cannot force it to do so.

Third, experts say that the wall will probably not stop Mexicans from illegally entering American territory. In response to the Mexican refusal to pay for the wall, Trump promptly replied that “the wall just got ten feet higher,” as if he were deciding the height of the wall based on a whim without considering the cost of this extra height.

There are rumours that Trump gave an off-the-record statement to the New York Times in January, saying that he does not intend to build the wall when he becomes president. Whether this is true or not, given the costs and impracticality of the wall one has to wonder if Trump is intentionally giving a false promise just to stir the emotions of his supporters and lure them into voting for him.

Another example of how Trump has been using anger as a stimulant is encouraging his supporters to commit acts of violence against hecklers at his rallies. Trump has been known to say things like “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya” about hecklers. In one incident, he said “so, if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously. Knock the hell out of him. I promise you, I will pay the legal fees.”

In another incident, he said that he missed “the old days” when hecklers could be “carried out on a stretcher,” adding that “we are not allowed to punch anymore.” There have been several incidents in which his supporters have committed acts of violence against hecklers. Encouraging people to vent their anger in such violent ways is another way of appealing to people’s feelings to lure them into voting for him.

THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION: The Republican Party National Convention, attended by thousands of Republican Party members and supporters, was held in Cleveland, Ohio, on 18-21 July to announce the Republican Party’s nomination of Trump for president in the 2016 presidential elections.

However, it was also an example of the haphazardness of the Republican Party’s campaign in general and the Trump campaign in particular. First, celebrities usually attend such political conventions, whether on the Republican side or the Democratic side, to support their candidate. At the Republican Convention of 2016, no celebrities attended because they did not want to associate themselves with Trump’s behaviour. The celebrities who did attend were actors and athletes who are not very well-known and are not famous on the world stage.

Second, the Convention did not really focus on policy solutions as much as it did on fear-mongering and the stirring of emotions, especially by focusing on Clinton’s corruption scandals, such as her failures in Libya and the e-mail server scandal.

One of the highlights of the Convention was the behaviour of governor of New Jersey Chris Kristie and the way he stirred a mob mentality among Trump supporters by reading out Clinton’s crimes in a mock trial. “Let us do something fun tonight,” he said, during his speech at the Convention. “As a former federal prosecutor, I welcome the opportunity to hold her accountable for her performance and her character.” Then he proceeded with reading a mock indictment against Clinton.

Why did Kristie do this? Kristie is one of Trump’s loyalists, and he was promised by Trump to be his 2016 running mate, i.e. to be the vice-presidential candidate on the Trump presidential ticket in 2016. But Trump broke his promise to Kristie and gave the VP post to governor of Indiana Mike Pence instead.

Comedian Trevor Noah, who fronts The Daily Show on the US network Comedy Central, said that Kristie’s speech at the Convention and the way he stirred the crowd was meant to show Trump that he would have been a better vice-presidential candidate than Pence because he knows how to stir the crowds. Noah said, impersonating Kristie, “see that, Donald? You could have got all this!”

Another example of the fear-mongering during the Republican Convention was the claim made by Trump that crime rates were up in the United States, even though FBI statistics show that crime rates are actually down. When confronted by these facts on the media, senior Trump supporters tried to elude these statistics and focus again on feelings and emotions instead.

For example, former speaker of the House of the Representatives Newt Gingrich was confronted on CNN by anchor Alisyn Camerota with FBI statistics which show that crime rates are actually lower in the United States. Gingrich responded by saying that crime rates were higher in some cities like Chicago or Baltimore, which is true, though these are localised problems in specific cities, and the average crime rate in the United States as a whole is lower.

Then he proceeded to dismiss the FBI statistics as “liberal propaganda,” even though the FBI is a non-partisan government agency. Finally, he insisted that these statistics were false simply because “the average American does not think crime is down” and people “feel” that crime is up. He said “as a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel.”

Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort was confronted with the statistics on CNN by anchor Jake Tapper. Manafort replied, again focusing on people’s feelings instead of facts, that “people don’t feel safe in their neighbourhoods. I do not know what statistics you’re talking about.” Then he said that the FBI could not be trusted. This shows a degree of oblivion to truths and facts. According to New York Magazine, Trump wants to present himself as the candidate for “law-and-order,” so it is useful to spread the feeling that crime rates are up. Again, this leads back to the Trump University Playbook, which advises instructors to focus on feelings and emotions instead of facts and logical thoughts.     

Another notable moment at the Convention was the speech by Trump’s wife Melania. It was a heart-warming speech about the beauty of American life and how Americans can achieve their dreams if they focus and work hard. The problem was that many parts of the speech had been copied almost word-for-word from a previous speech by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Initially, the Trump campaign denied any plagiarism, and Manafort said that such accusations were “just really absurd.” Melania Trump initially claimed that she had written the speech herself “with as little help as possible.” But after the plagiarism incident was revealed, the speechwriter was identified as Meredith McIver, a 65-year-old staffer at the Trump campaign. McIver apologised for the incident, saying that she took parts of Michelle Obama’s speech because she was an admirer of the current first lady.

McIver was not fired from the Trump campaign. Again, comedians made fun of the plagiarism incident, given that Trump himself once said that “I went to an Ivy League school. I am very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.” If he really had the “best words,” they said, why did his campaign need to plagiarise?

WILL TRUMP WIN: When Trump announced in June 2015 that he would run for president of the United States, only a few people took him seriously. Today, we see that Trump’s focus on people’s feelings of anger, fear and even hatred has paid off and helped him win the Republican Party nomination in July 2016.

But will this approach help him to win the presidential elections which take place in November? Clinton is currently a few points ahead of Trump, according to recent polls. This lead is for two reasons. The first is her very good performance at the Democratic Party National Convention in Philadelphia on 25-28 July. The second is that Trump made fun of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of an American Muslim soldier who died in Iraq in 2004. The Khans appeared at the Democratic Convention and said they would not support Trump.

According to Schleifer, “over the past few days, [Trump’s] recurrent verbal attacks against American Muslims have backfired, and he is losing the support of leading figures and funders in his own Party.”

The question is: is Clinton’s lead going to last? There is still a serious possibility that Trump’s approach might help him win the elections in November. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has predicted that Clinton could lose to Trump. Similarly, American film director Michael Moore, who directed Fahrenheit 911, Capitalism: A Love Story and other documentaries, has also predicted that Trump could win. According to Moore, this is because Trump is the voice of the “angry white man,” and Democratic Party voters’ enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is not as much as former Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders had among his supporters.

Moore dismissed the idea that Clinton could beat Trump with facts and logic. Scott Adams, too, has predicted a victory for Trump. Many comedians are saying, in what sounds like a sad joke, that “maybe we should get used to saying the words ‘president Trump’.”

It is not yet clear what will win in November: Clinton’s logic and intelligence, or Trump’s exploitation of people’s feelings. Whatever the case, the US is going through a period of what in political science is called “relative decline” on the global level. This means that other rising powers like China and Russia are quickly catching up with American power, and America is becoming less free to do what it wants in the world.

The US is also losing its influence in the Middle East, and it is unlikely that Trump or Clinton will be able to reverse this trend. To be clear, this is not meant to be a defence of Hillary Clinton, or even current president Barack Obama, as both have their fair share of skeletons in the closet. But given Trump’s attitude, it is extremely unlikely that he would be a better president than Clinton.  


The writer is an assistant professor of Political Science at the Future University in Egypt.

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