How content helped Donald trump Hillary

Editor Paul Simpson ponders how four words on a baseball cap helped clinch the most powerful job in the world

If any one factor triggered the #Trumpapocalypse, as it is popularly known on Twitter, it was a baseball cap emblazoned with four well chosen words “Make America great again”.

Who, apart from a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party, could challenge such a slogan? And, although Donald Trump’s campaign was mocked for spending 78% more on baseball caps than opinion polls – hitherto regarded as essential to a Presidential campaign – in this instance, the medium really was the message.

The caps were perfect for a ‘self made’ billionaire scion of a New York real estate tycoon who wanted to position himself in the American mainstream. The only way Trump could have made a more blatant patriotic pitch was to pay a million American housewives to bake an apple with “Make America great again” carved into the pastry.

Shrewd, simple soundbites

Like the Brexit soundbite “Take back control”, “Make America great again” was shrewdly designed to cut through the clutter in an age when voters, suffering from a kind of attention deficit disorder, often pay less attention to established media than to peers on social media.

The echo chamber effect of Facebook and Twitter ˙– Trump had 12.9m followers on the latter, compared to 10.1m for Clinton – makes it easier for candidates to follow American humourist Jack Handey’s advice: “You can fool some of the people all of the time – and those are the ones you should focus on.”

As succinct as a reality TV catchphrase – ‘”You’re fired!” springs to mind for some reason – Trump’s motto also harked back to the rhetoric of past iconic presidents – Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (1932), John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier (1960) and, imitation being the best form of flattery, Ronald Reagan’s Make America Great Again (1980).

Against Trump’s crusade to restore America’s lustre, Hillary Clinton offered a more coherent political platform but no pithy elevator pitch. Her slogan “Stronger Together” was dubbed  “rhetorical oatmeal” by one adviser and didn’t connect to those who feared that America had become weaker and more divided.

It's the medium...

The baseball caps were old school, but there was nothing retro about Trump’s use of social media. In one of his first post-election interviews, he said, “social media is where it’s at” in politics, more important than power or money.

During the campaign, Trump was commander in tweet, calling Russell Brand a “loser with nothing going”, fulminating that “crooked Hillary” was rigging the election and musing: “I’ve never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke”.

Becoming one of the most quoted 140 character writers in the world helped define the Trump brand – as did the baseball caps, the outrageous remarks, the ill-fitting blue suits, the unfinished sentences, even the micro-engineered hair. They made this self-styled ‘blue-collar billionaire’, feel authentic, for all his obvious flaws and vanities, an archetypal American maverick hero, in the plain-speaking tradition of John Wayne (whose birthplace Trump visited last January).

His oratory was mocked as rambling and undisciplined – surely he knew “bigly” wasn’t a word? – but it was intimate, memorable and pitched with a salesman’s sure instincts. He could summon voters’ visceral disgust and uplift them with feelgood rhetoric – often at the same rally.

The irony of his last campaign address, when he promised to govern for forgotten Americans, was that Trump ad-libbed more effective speeches than Clinton’s aides wrote. (The best speech of the campaign. Michelle Obama’s “aim low, aim high” address, electrified Democrats in a way that Clinton never did.)

Not always on-message

That said, Trump’s rhetoric was often ugly. In no other presidential campaign has the winner mocked the disabled, boasted about sexually assaulting women, insulted the bereaved family of a Muslim war veteran and called Mexicans rapists. He has been rightly accused of fear mongering. He didn’t create the fear ­but he played on it, with little thought as to where such rhetoric might lead.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire who co-founded Pay-Pal and advises the president-elect, said: “The media is always taking Trump literally but not seriously. Many voters take Trump seriously not literally.” When Trump vowed to build a wall along the Mexican border what supporters heard was, Thiel said, “We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.”

That may also partly explain why a candidate who boasted you can get away with groping women if you’re famous, won 62% of white working class women’s votes.

Take Trump literally, as the media largely did, and you end up with such contortions as Peter Oborne’s Daily Mail column, headlined: “He may be a bigot, racist and misogynist, but Donald Trump’s revolution could finally bring back family values.”

Contrasting visions

Whether you saw Trump’s vision of America as a dream or a nightmare, you could picture it. Clinton’s vision was harder to imagine. The first woman to be nominated for US President by a major party, she never turned that historic feat into a narrative that resonated across America. In an election defined by a fierce, inchoate demand for change, she seemed to offer a vaguely improved version of the status quo. It would be harsh, but not entirely inaccurate, to say that the most distinctive aspect of Clinton’s campaign were her pantsuits.

To the 70% of white working class men who voted for Trump, the former Secretary of State embodied the political elite that had ‘betrayed’ them. Known to staff as a woman who could let her guard down, sink a few beers and have a laugh, Clinton would probably have done better to present this persona to America.

She didn’t and her self-consciousness was reflected in gestures – the rictus grin, hands clasped over her head; pointing at acquaintances as if they were long-lost family members – that made her seem more of a political hack. They were the kind of gestures John F. Kennedy ridiculed Richard Nixon, his opponent in 1960, for using. In contrast, Trump’s trademark ‘palms out’ move, though corny, seemed natural.

Effective campaigning

The unquantifiable billions of dollars of free airtime that Trump’s unorthodox, combative, often demagogic campaign generated may partly explain why he won despite spending half as much as his rival and hiring a sixth of her staff. One analysis of the US media between July 2015 and August 2016, found 29,019 articles on Trump, compared to 18,640 about Clinton.

Yet his marketing was hardly flawless: exit polls suggest that only a third of voters considered him honest. Could that yet come back to haunt him? Or is Trump, whose life is a continuous re-editing process, going to stop all the trash talk as he seeks to win over some of the 70m Americans who voted against him on election day?

Every president-elect feels omnipotent and omniscient – for a while. When JFK became president, an aide desegregated the White House band with one phone call. With such a phone, the aide reflected, you could change the world. Only a few months later, contemplating past presidents, Kennedy described Abraham Lincoln as “a sad man, because he couldn’t get it all at once – and nobody can.”

Even Trump won’t get it all at once. Yet he will be aware that the “forgotten Americans” who supported him, will expect swift, tangible evidence of restored American greatness. And if that doesn’t happen, even being the best 140-character writer in the world won’t stave off the next #trumpapocalypse.

The US election in five quick tweets

62% of white working class women voted for Trump, even though he boasted about sexually assaulting women #USelections

“The media takes Trump literally but not seriously. Some voters take him seriously but not literally” said Peter Thiel #USelections

How could voters choose a President who thought “bigly” was a word? #USelections

Only a third of voters regarded Trump as honest. Could that come back to haunt him? #USelections

Apart from a card-carrying Communist, which US voter could argue with the slogan “Make America Great Again”? #USelections

Photo: Gage Skidmore