Donald J. Trump: The maverick
An analysis of the construction of Trump's message
Donald J. Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. In this paper, we will analyze Donald Trump’s message and how he has created a certain image of himself both before the election. We also look at how his message is influenced by messages created by others. More specifically, we will discuss how ‘negative’ indendments created by others actually enhance Trump’s message. Finally, we will discuss how Donald Trump’s message explains his success.
Donald Trump’s own construction of message
In politics the term ‘message’ has a different meaning than it has in everyday life. In politics, message is “the politician’s publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere” (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012 - p.1). What is written about Donald Trump on his website actually just boasts about how great he is and the great things he has achieved. An image is constructed of a very successful businessman who knows how to get things done and who accomplishes his goals. This message is created with glorifying statements about Trump himself and about the things he has done and achieved.
On the ‘About’ page on Trump’s website, multiple things about Donald Trump are stated, but one thing they all have in common is that he is successful in all of them. This creates an image of Donald Trump as a winner; someone who is successful and can do great things. The page ends with some more personal information about Donald Trump, namely where he was born and some information about his family. Remarkable is that, compared to previous information, this part is very minimal. This demonstrates that Trump does not want to present himself as a family-oriented person (like Hilary Clinton), but as the very successful man who knows how to get things done (Maly, 2016).
When Donald Trump was viewed as one of the two candidates to become president of the United States, the characteristics ‘independent’ and ‘maverick’ were added to this message. From this perspective, Donald Trump is the man who is the outsider of politics. He is the one who is against the established political order, the one who speaks for the common American. He is against the current political system, which according to him is embodied by Hillary Clinton. The current political establishment is framed by Trump as corrupt. In his messages, Trump frames politicians as people who talk a lot, but do not actively realize anything. Compared to that, Trump is the man who knows how to get things done and gets them done. The successes Donald Trump had in the past, which are glorified on his website, are used to demonstrate this. Here the dualistic aspect of message, as described by Lempert and Silverstein (2012), becomes clearly visible. According to Lempert and Silverstein (2012, p.26),
"Message is both positive - what you want for yourself - and negative - how you want to brand your opponent."
Donald Trump’s message in which he is the successful man who gets things done is not only created using verbal communication, it is also supported through non-verbal communication. According to Blommaert (2005), every communicative act also says something about the speaker himself; it contributes to the image we have of someone. Thereby, Silverstein (2003) argued that the way message is communicated is as important as the discourses of the candidate. Having this in mind, in all of Donald Trump’s speeches and debates we can see that he likes to bring out messages by raising his voice. This has the effect of coming across as a very confident man with strong leadership skills. Furthermore, this supports the facet of his message as the man who will stand up for the American people against the established political order. Thereby, the image of a very confident man with strong leadership supports the idea that Trump is the right man to be president of the United States. This non-verbal aspect of Trump’s communication is also a way of being ‘on-message’, which is communicating something in line with the message someone wants to create. As stated by Lempert and Silverstein (2012, p.26): "To create Message and keep a candidate on Message, campaigns try to deploy signs in multiple modalities that should mutually reinforce one another and invite a favorable story about who the candidate is".
How Donald Trump frames his opponent, Hillary Clinton, is also a form of message. As stated before, negative messages about the opponent is also a part of message (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). In his speeches and debates, Trump mentions that Hillary is a crook. These accusations can also be found on his various social media accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This way he wants to throw dirt at Hillary for making all the mistakes over the years she has been in politics, and that she should be behind bars for being a corrupt politician. By humiliating his opponent, Trump wants to make a lot of people think that he is a better candidate and a better president who will rid America of all crooks. Before making America great again, he wants to cleanse it first of all that is wrong with it. After America gets rid of all that is wrong with it, including crooks like Hillary Clinton, they can rebuild it again into something greater. This is the message that Trump wants to send out by denigrating Hillary Clinton.
Message constructed by others
Message is not only constructed by oneself, it is also constructed by others. These messages, especially those from the opposition, could be negative. Therefore, it is important that attention is paid to these negative messages. Or as Lempert and Silverstein (2012) stated: “withstanding the toxic negative Messages of others” (p.15). Interesting about negative messages constructed by others about Trump is that these messages actually have a positive consequence for his message.
By the media and by Hillary Clinton, a lot of negative message is spread about Donald Trump. With these messages, they want to create an image of Donald Trump as a man who is unfit for presidency, who lacks political experience and who is exceedingly politically incorrect. However, these messages actually enhance Trump’s own message of Trump being the maverick. So if Trump is being criticized on his political incorrectness, this enhances his message as someone who, compared to other politicians, dares to say politically incorrect things. When Trump is accused of lacking political experience, this enhances his message of him being the outsider, the one who different from the current established political order. So in regards to the construction of Trump’s message, negative messages by others are actually used in favor of his own.
What explains Donald Trump’s success?
As a lot of people are already exhausted from all the corrupt politicians who run their country, it is time to step up a notch. These are the people to whom Donald Trump is addressing his message. These people see Trump as a change or a potential hero that can change the whole corrupt system as it is now. For the change, they need someone from a non-political background in order to make the system better; someone who thinks exactly like the people instead of someone who thinks exactly like a politician.
According to his followers, Trump took everything one step further. Anti-politician politicians still acted like politicians and still tried to appear rational and well informed, stuck to the script, avoided scandals, etc. Trump is the first anti-politician politician who abandoned that feature set. People who have been primed for decades to hate politicians, love this. A lot of people see this as a start to 'make America great again'. Because Trump openly calls out on Hillary’s corrupt political decisions, he constructs himself as the man who will rid the United States of all criminals, and this is why he has won the election. Hillary has managed to get away with all of her mistakes so far and has not been thrown in jail yet. However, Trump made a statement that she will be behind bars if he becomes president. People who believe in Trump see this statement as a great solution and a way for great justice. The established political order is something no one has ever dared to step against. Therefore, Trump is portrayed as the right man for the job.
The screenshots above have been taken from the comment section of Donald Trump’s official Facebook page. A lot of people consider him as inspiring, and this can be seen in the comment section of every post Donald Trump shares on his social media. From those comments, it is clear that a very large segment of American society is fed up by what they perceive as a governing system that is failing them. They see corruption at local and regional levels and therefore want a change. By his supporters, Trump is seen as a self-confident man who is invulnerable, who has name recognition and visibility. He has a public reputation of an extremely successful businessperson able to get things done, which is carefully burnished by a decade of highly produced television episodes all making that point.
Trump is understood as 'a person who speaks his mind,' dares to say out loud some of the uncomfortable things about 'the other' that they are thinking themselves. These are some of the reasons why Trump has become the next president of the US. In the public’s eyes, he is not the typical politician that the US has had over the years, and people believe he will actually make America great again. Hereby, the more people or the media stress that Trump is politically incorrect and that he lacks political experience, the more his message of him being the outsider, and who is therefore able to make America great again is strengthened. All of these features make sense to all his followers as they keep supporting him and keep believing that he is what America truly needs to be saved.
Another aspect of Donald Trump’s success has to do with celebrity and media attention. The relation between politician and celebrity has been addressed by Lempert and Silverstein (2012). They described how, in their message, political creatures are created and how politicians become celebrities. They also mention the importance and advantages of being a celebrity in politics. An advantage is the media attention a celebrity gets, and this attention could be used in order to spread your message as a politician. In the case of Trump, he was already a well-known celebrity and he makes full use of his fame. Thereby, some of his discourse also results in a lot of media attention. Even though someone may reject or feel offended by Trump’s statements, it is getting him a lot of attention.
Lempert, M., & Silverstein, M. (2012). Creatures of politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Bommaert, J. (2005). Discourse. A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press