Not even Cassandra, cursed to prophesise but never be believed, could have predicted the tumultuous change that occurred in 2016. In June, just over half of the British public (51.89%) voted to leave the European Union. Then, in November, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the President of the United States.
And not only did Trump defeat Clinton, winning thirty of America’s fifty states (though Clinton did win the popular vote), the Republican Party utterly decimated the Democrats. Trump won thirty of America’s fifty states (Clinton, admittedly, did win the popular vote). The Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives, have a majority in the Senate, hold thirty-three state governorships, and control thirty-two state legislatures.
Brexit’s victory and Trump’s triumph comes off the back of a deeper cultural movement. It is a movement that rejects the doctrines of political correctness, identity politics, diversity, and equality in favour of greater intellectual rigour and personal freedom. Trump’s gift to this movement has been to expand the Overton Window. As an indirect consequence of his uncouthness, the boundaries of public discourse have been expanded exponentially.
Throughout his campaign, the media treated Trump as a joke. He hasn’t got a hope in Hades, they claimed. In the end, however, they were proven wrong. Trump won through a mixture of hard-line policies on immigration and a rejection of political correctness and far-left politics. And he won through his astounding ability to market himself to the American people.
The first thing to note is that Trump thrives on scandal. Much of this ability emanates from his already tarnished reputation as a rude, uncouth, bully and womaniser. Trump has never denied these facets of his personality (in some cases he has even emphasised them). What this means is that those who voted for Trump did so despite the significant faults in his character. Consequentially, accusations involving sex or money (the two things people truly care about) has little effect on him.
Then there is his skill as an emotional manipulator. Trump appeals directly to the emotional sensibilities of the people by using fear-mongering rhetoric to circumvent the mind’s critical faculties. Rather than emphasising the importance of maintaining the integrity of immigration law, Trump chooses to emphasise the crimes – rapes, murders, drug offences – committed by some illegal immigrants. After this, Trump promotes anger by setting up an out-group as the enemy. As a result, Trump implies not only that he is the best man to solve these issues, but that anyone who opposes him is somehow anti-American.
Finally, there is Trump’s use of simplicity and repetition as persuasive tools. Nuanced and boring statements can be taken out of context. By contrast, simple and heavily repetitive statements are harder to take out of context. But, more importantly, such statements are also more likely to be believed.
Much of Trump’s use of simplicity has its basis in his relationship with language. Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level and averages one syllable per word. While it would be easy to dismiss this as unsophisticated or low brow, it is important to remember that small words have a stronger and more immediate emotional impact, are more accessible to a wider audience, and are considered more believable. Cognitive fluency bias means that that the easier it is to understand something, the more likely it is to be believed. As a consequence, Trump’s use of small, simple words means he is more likely to be understood and, therefore, is more likely to be believed.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Trump’s magnetism is his ability to bypass the traditional mediums of communication and appeal directly to the American people. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who relied upon celebrity support and the mainstream media, Trump and his supporters used social media to appeal directly to voters. The lesson is clear: voters like for politicians to speak to them as equals, not preach to them from on high.