There seems to be a consensus among the elite journalists, mainstream politicians and Hillary Clinton supporters around the world: Donald J. Trump is a ‘dangerous clown’. Not only is he badly informed; he is a liar, a misogynist, a birther and a racist. Ergo, Trump is not fit to be the commander-in-chief. One assumes that all of this is not only obvious, but also exudes a negative message. The counter-strategy is limited to pointing out his lies and his racist and sexist slurs. All the counter-discourse, in essence, conveys one message: he is a dangerous idiot, a moron. This strategy overlooks the power of his message and fails to construct a potent counter-movement. In this first article of the series on Trump's Message I focus on the weaknesses of the 'negative messaging' of Trump's critics.
Send in the clowns
Trump is everywhere: on our screens, in our newspapers and on our newsfeeds. He lingers on our devices. Even when people hate him, they stay tuned in when he speaks. Trump has a high entertainment factor, and many see him as funny, entertaining or at least provocative. Many journalists and politicians, especially liberals and supporters of Hillary, understand Trump within the frame of the clown. The Daily News even made a running theme out of it (Borchers, 2016). In a political interview on MSNBC, the influential comedian Trevor Noah of 'The Daily Show' called Trump ‘a dangerous clown' and argues that it is a big mistake to try to make sense of Trump's discourse:
'I think that this is the biggest mistake. That we still try to make sense of something that is complete buffoonery. Donald Trump doesn’t make sense and the more you try to make sense of it, the less sense it is going to make. We have gotten to a point in the campaign where, unfortunately, there is somebody who is a clown, a dangerous clown, but he managed to ramp up the rhetoric, through a crazy primary, were we got to a point where he is now the Republican nominee.' (MSNBC, 2016)
Even though he ‘doesn’t make sense’, and even though he is indeed a clown, he somehow got lucky. Against all odds in a U.S. Presedential election, Trump, in this account, accidently has success. He is just a clown, of which the five living presidents think he is not fit to be commander-in-chief (Koppelman, 2016).
Barbara Streisand, in a similar way, mocked Trump with a parody on ‘Send in the Clowns’ during an LGBT fundraiser she organized for Clinton. In this parody, Trump is ridiculed as an idiot that is not able to control himself: 'And when we thought we‘d heard it all, huffing and puffing about his big fantasy wall, making his entrance on stage—he just shoots from the hip! He’s full of bull, he’s lost his grip!' (Stefansky, 2016). Trump is portrayed as a loose cannon, full of baloney and totally out of control.
Mainstream media and Clinton and her supporters frame Trump’s message hastily as making ‘no sense’, as buffoonery. They see a campaign that is ‘all over the place’ (Tracy, 2016): it is talked about in terms like ‘surreal’, ‘bizarre’, and ‘confused’. CNN delineates Trump’s campaign as ‘strange getting stranger’ (Bash and Collinson, 2016). The discourse of the elite press, including that of President Barack Obama, focuses on the ludicrous things Trump says: his lies, his misogynist and racist statements, his simplicities, and the surreal chance of him getting away with it all. The rhetoric undoubtedly concludes that he will be a disaster; that he is unfit to become president and commander-in-chief, and that he is a danger. As gracefully stated on the website of Hillary Clinton: ‘Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit for the presidency.’ (Clinton campaign website pop-up, 19/09/2016).
Trumpisms are 'funny’ for the so-called elites, but one fails to see how these 'comedic' sequences make sense for many people out there.
The anti-Trump-activists strike similar chords. Just like with George W. Bush and the amazingly popular ‘Bushisms’, we now find dozens of sites that collect 'Trumpisms' (Guerra, 2016) aiming to critique the irrational and stupid nature of Donald Trump. The success of these Trumpisms is more an entertainment success than that of a political success. It generates laughs, but Trump and his supporters are seemingly unaffected by them: the campaign does not seem to lose much support. ‘The negative messaging’, somehow, is sucked up by Trump’s bragging message machine.
How come? Well if you look at the thousands of videos, slide-shows, Facebook and Twitter-posts, one sees that the critics only focus on little bits of his discourse. And this discourse is seen from the vantage point of "content": making sense means making sense rationally and informationally, not emotionally. These bits are then framed as proof of him being ‘a clown’ who cannot speak. If we take the Los Angeles Times contribution on ‘Trumpisms’ as an example, we see that they focus on certain speaking patterns of Trump. The humor is found in the fact that he does not build a sound, rational argument. He is presented as someone that keeps repeating the same phrases like ‘many of my friends’ and ‘that is unfair … he is unfair … he knows that he is unfair …’. And of course, the constant framing of the New York Times ‘as a failing newspaper’. The system, embodied by Hillary Clinton, is framed by Trump as ‘crooked’ and supported by an ‘unbelievably dishonest press’ (Los Angeles Times, 2016).
These sequences maybe ‘funny’ for the so-called elites, but one fails to see how these 'comedic' sequences make sense for many people out there. Furthermore, it is overlooked that these phrases making ‘decent, rational and non-deplorable people’ laugh is actually creating support for the claims that are attached to them. One also neglects to acknowledge that ‘laughing’ with and reproducing 'Trumpisms' may actually contribute to his success and to the creation of his message, instead of harming him. The negative messaging, supports the image of Trump being anti-establishment: He is the guy who will punch Washington in the face (Draper, 2009).
Understanding why Trump scores
The focus from the mainstream press on Trump’s ‘show’-factor and his buffoonery fails to highlight that he does make sense for many people. He is not only the most hated presidential candidate, he is also deeply loved by part of the electorate. He speaks to them. The coverage of MSNBC, Vanity Fair and The New York Times generate laughs and applause among the ‘decent’ people, but it doesn’t explain Trump’s success, nor does it tackle his campaign.
Framing him as a dangerous clown has two unforeseen consequences: (1) they deliver proof of Trump’s claim that the establishment is not siding with the white-working-class for whom he pretends to speak. (2) Trump’s opponents stop thinking. It pleases and comforts them, but it doesn’t urge them to understand why he scores. It makes the fact that millions of Americans don’t think he‘s funny invisible. Trump’s supporters really think he is ‘the greatest’ and that he will do good for them. Ann Coulter tweets it every day: 'In Trump we Trust'.
Trump's followers are not laughing; they take him very seriously indeed. According to his followers, he will 'make America great again'. They really do ‘believe’ him (or at least want to believe him), and they eat up the claim that ‘the media’ is ‘unbelievably dishonest’. Every negative message in mainstream media, like the New York Times, is understood within the portrayal that Trump has provided: They are crooked and dishonest. Trump speaks to 'Joe the Plumber', while The New York Times writes for the 'Rolex-wearing elite'.
What the ‘decent’ press reads as ‘all over the place’ mobilizes enormous masses both on and offline. They recognize themselves in his message – including the racism, the misogyny, the authoritarianism and the simplicities. In light of this, it is good to remind the words of the great literary theorist, Kenneth Burke, while writing about the critics of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf:
‘if the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty, in advance, that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment.' (Burke, 1939-1940: 1)
In this paper, one of the finest pieces of political discourse analysis ever performed, Burke pointed out that Hitler (who was also understood and ridiculed by the ‘decent’ press at the time as a phony and a dangerous clown) had to be taken seriously. Anyone who is able to mobilize such masses does at least something ‘right’. Again, it is necessary to keep in mind that 'making sense' can happen through a broad range of effects, just one of which being 'content'. Being 'on message' is not about using eloquent rhetoric, it is about mobilizing all semiotic means to persuade the audience that you are the one that will answer their needs. His message, just like Trump’s today, was horrible and despicable to say the least, but it resonated with a substantial mass. He was not just a ‘freak’, or an idiot, he was a communicator whose discourse, style and identity addressed the ‘right things’ for many people at the time. And we all know what happened.
By framing Trump as a clown, the critics make the same mistake. They fail to see that many people do not laugh when he speaks. They fail to notice that many want to punch Washington in the face. Even more, Trump not only addresses many different target audiences – from white evangelicals and conservative atheists, over Tea Party members, the Alt-Right and even prominent members of the KKK, to the 1% elite and poor unemployed people - he also succeeds in mobilizing and unifying them. They all feel addressed. They recognize themselves, their problems and their needs in his message. They believe that he will make America Great Again, for them.
It is not necessarily the candidate with the best argument or discourse that wins elections.
If we want to establish why Trump scores, we have to understand why he makes sense for his massive amount of followers. In order to do that, we should leave behind the idea that politics in highly mediatized societies is only about the rational political debate on the issues – the logocracy. It is not necessarily the candidate with the best argument or discourse that wins. Unfortunately, it is not all about the issues.
In the next contribution Ico Maly focuses on Trump's positive messaging: Trump, the celebrity-businessman and vox populism and in the last article he focuses on Trump's performance in Mississippi: How did Trump get this far?
Barthes, R. (1957). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.
Bash, D. and Collinson, S. (2016). The GOP's Donald Trump freak-out. CNN. Last retrieved on 27/09/2016.
Burke, K. (1939-1940). The rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’. The Southern Review, (1939-1940), pp.1-21.
Borchers, C. (2016). New York Daily News calls Donald Trump a ‘Dead clown walking’. The Washington Post, 2 February 2016.
Draper, R. (2016, 29 September). How Donald Trump Set Off a Civil War Within the Right-Wing Media
Guerra, J. (2016). Trumpisms: The Donald's Most Outrageous Remarks. TWCC. Last retrieved on 27/10/2016.
Koppelman, S. (2016). There are five living U.S. presidents. None of them support Donald Trump.The people who know what it takes know that Trump doesn’t have it. Hillary Clinton Campaign Website. Last retrieved: 27/09/2016.
Los Angeles Times, (2016). Trumpisms: Say it, repeat it, say it again. Los Angeles Times. Last retrieved on 27/09/2016.
MSNBC. (2016). Trevor Noah: Donald Trump Is A 'Dangerous Clown'. On MSNBC.
Tracy, A. (2016). Donald Trump holds bizarre press conference after flying to Mexico. Vanity Fair. Last retrieved on 27/09/2016.