Why we can’t ignore the Trump effect

For the past year I have resisted the urge to add my two cents to the tsunami of opinion on Donald Trump, even though many of you have asked my opinion. And now that we are (thankfully) in the closing days of this election, I have given in.

The Trump effect is unlike anything I have seen before as a communications professional. Love him or hate him, this is a man who ripped up the rule book and changed how the political campaign game is played.

Let’s be clear – this blog post is in no way an endorsement of Trump or his rhetoric, but we can’t ignore what his campaign means for the future of political communications.

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The Beginning: How Trump Gained Momentum

From the start of the campaign, he was never on message – or at least he has never appeared to be. He contradicts himself, goes on epic, unfiltered social media rants, doesn’t shy away from personal attacks and has a fantastic disregard for facts. This literally reads like a laundry list of what a spokesperson should never do. In fact, many politicians have seen once-promising campaigns (and careers) disintegrate after making mistakes that seem positively benign in comparison to Trump’s antics.  

And yet not only have these missteps had no discernible effect on Trump’s popularity, they seem to have propelled The Donald brand forward.

It is worth remembering that Donald Trump didn’t win the nomination on a technicality or fluke. He decisively beat numerous other candidates – many with years of political pedigree – and was overwhelming endorsed by the party base.

While commentators and politicos scrambled to comprehend Trump, he managed to capture and hold the attention of the media and garner the dedicated support of many Americans through his untraditional tactics, even as he ignored reporters’ questions, argued and belittled them and accused them of bias.

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To America, this was a better version of reality TV. People were fascinated to see what he would do, who he would offend and what might come out of his mouth.

In spite of being accused of repeated falsehoods, Trump has managed to create the perception that he is somehow “authentic.” His ‘”rough and ready” demeanor seems to have resonated most deeply with the average voter. Instead of denying his personal failings or aggressive business practices, he positions himself as a “real” person who doesn’t buy into Washington “phoniness.” Much has been made of the fact that Trump writes his own tweets and, regardless of their content, many people respond positively to this unfiltered access to an actual viable political contender.

The Trump phenomenon also highlights the fact that there is a clear divide within the Republican party. If they fail to bring their positions on social issues into the 21st century and develop a clear platform that appeals to the majority of the population, it’s clear they will continue to falter in future elections.  

The Takeaway from Trump

Now, in the final days of the campaign, there are signs Trump’s failure to filter what he says may have finally gone a step too. The outcome remains to be seen.

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From a communications perspective, however, it is worth considering what the “Trump effect” means in the long term.

I think it would be foolish to dismiss his campaign as a one-off moment that’s unlikely to be repeated. Whether Trump wins or loses, we can anticipate a Trump-like candidate or two making a play for power in future elections, and such candidates are likely to be even bigger and brasher. The Trump campaign has in many ways desensitized the public, blurring the lines that once delineated polite behavior and good taste. For future candidates looking to dominate the discourse, the shock value barometer has been set at a high level.

We should also anticipate Silicon Valley titans making a play for politics now that Trump has proved that lack of political experience and considerable personal wealth are no obstacles to success. In fact, the independence such wealth enables was a key factor in Trump’s early primary campaign as he accused his fellow contenders of allowing themselves to be bought by lobbyists and special interest groups. Much of the public – on either side of the party divide – agreed with his view.

I think we will also see a different approach in terms of communication style with future candidates – fewer perfectly photo-shopped family pictures, less bland soundbites and more real world language that resonates with how voters feel and how they speak.

But before future political campaigners or other high profile spokespeople seek to throw out the communications rule book completely, it is worth remembering that Trump has been famous for the best part of 40 years. He built a brand on a certain kind of billionaire brashness and had a loyal, captive audience before his political ambitions ever came into play. In short, while we may be shocked at how disruptive an influence he has been in the political world, the Donald Trump we see today isn’t that much of a stretch from the celebrity of the past four decades.