"Hacking" the Presidency

Donald Trump Media Scrum

Rarely do I suffer from writer's block, but I have to admit I have wrestled with a suitable follow-up to last August's post on the U.S. Presidential election. For the past ten months, I have been quietly analyzing the Donald Trump phenomenon and have reached the conclusion that he did in fact hack the presidential election, but not in the way that you might think.

Donald J. Trump represents a very American strain of showmanship and salesmanship. At the tail end of the Cold War, he was the personification of 80s glamour and opulence. He became famous for personifying Capitalism—a personal brand that he reinforced in a savvy, relentless and hyperbolic self-promotional campaign.

In his own words (taken from "The Art of the Deal" published in 1987), “The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you...I’ve always done things a little differently, I don’t mind controversy… The result is that the press has always wanted to write about me.”

These very simple words demonstrate that Donald Trump understands public relations better than most. He knows exactly how to excite people, what to say to attract public attention and therefore how to dominate the news cycle. In fact, he could put a lot of PR pros to shame with his mastery of attention-grabbing headlines. 

The media, even those outlets that are critical of his presidency—especially those that are critical of his presidency—are complicit in his success, because they are profiting from the attention he generates. His genius lies in understanding the symbiotic nature of this relationship. The New York Times has record numbers of new subscribers and CNN is more popular than it has been in years. Donald Trump is good for the news business and the media helped him win the presidency by covering him non-stop. This is old-school public relations: no publicity is bad publicity.

Donald Trump Facing the Press

So, how exactly did he hack the system? By tapping into the very fact that there are no systems and that reality does not exist... I realize this may not be my most popular post, but bear with me on this point.

Our world is predicated on agreements between groups of people that certain ideas are more valid than others. For instance, a financial transaction between two people can only work as long as both parties believe in its value.

In fact, money, religion, politics, art and truth are all abstractions. They exist only in our minds. Societies survive and thrive, because we all agree to believe in these fictions. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari explains this very eloquently in his book, "Sapiens."

At a very fundamental level, Donald Trump understood that these beliefs are just stories we tell ourselves. So, why not spin a new story and make it the accepted reality? If anything, he is a master of selling his brand. He used the same PR tactics he has used for years and applied them to the highly structured world of politics. No one saw him coming.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump was willing to say whatever was needed to seal the deal, unlike his rivals who followed well-established rituals that stayed within the rules of a rigid political game. The other candidates feared being called out by the media if they strayed too far from the usual scripts we expect from our politicians. Donald Trump, on the other hand, understood that he could override these norms, as long as, in exchange, he provided the media with entertaining content to feed their system and boost advertising sales. Quid pro quo.

The President still does this masterfully, deflecting stories by creating controversy and/or provoking the media and his opponents. A news story erupts; he deflects by creating a distraction; the media follows the new angle and forgets all about the previous story. The more the "mainstream media" expresses its disapproval, the easier it is for him to establish his narrative of being an outsider speaking for the disenfranchised, and the deeper his fan base digs in. No amount of fact-checking or righteous indignation will be able to dent his popularity with his supporters. Instead, it will reinforce his outsider narrative and make him more popular. Donald Trump has given his fans a vision of America they can believe in and he always stays on message.

Donald Trump in Front of Supporters

The next election will be defined by the candidate who presents the strongest vision and most compelling story to the American people. At the moment, there is no other narrative to compete with that of Donald Trump. However, his strategy is divisive and could be displaced by a potentially unifying message that would galvanize larger numbers of voters. Earlier this year, the Frameworks Institute described the myth of "two Americas," one red and the other blue, and argued that we need to re-frame the conversation about the future of our country as a real community of neighbors, families and co-workers, despite our differences. These discussions will need to break through the bubbles we have created for ourselves by choosing the news we want to hear and surrounding ourselves with people who think just like us.

Story-telling platforms will play a pivotal role in the next elections, just as they did in 2016. While digital media promised us greater connectivity, they have also divided us into separate tribes, aligned by short-term interests rather than by long-term social bonds. The spoils of the 2018 and 2020 elections will belong to the camp that manages to harness traditional and social media by disrupting current online and offline narratives. The winner will have to harness the energy and swirling chaos of our current reality by presenting a compelling story we can all believe in, or at least want to believe in. One way or another, it will probably involve a promise of radical change...

May the best vision win!