Trump, the celebrity-businessman and vox populism

Explaining Trump's message- Part 2

11 minutes to read
Ico Maly


A presidential candidate does not have to speak like Lincoln or Obama to win the elections. We all remember George W. Bush, don't we? Winning elections is not about how well-informed or intelligent a candidate is, it’s about ‘message’. Coincidentally, Donald J. Trump is a massive message-beaming machine. In this second article, I will analyze Trump's "bragging-message machine". 

(This article is a follow-up to the two previous articles "Is Donald Trump a 'dangerous clown'?")



First of all, we should be clear about what 'message' means. Contrary to what one expects, in politics, message is not dominantly about the themes a candidate is literally communicating (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012: 1-2). Message is as much about what politicians say about certain issues, as it is about how and when they say it. Every communicative act not only says something about the world, it also says something about the speaker himself (Blommaert, 2005): it contributes to the image we have of someone. Message is about "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: 1). Style – the way image is communicated - is as important as the discourses of the candidate and about the candidate (Silverstein, 2003: 15e). They should all be taken into account. Message is constructed as a collage-in-motion of communicative issue events (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012: &-2) during which the imagined character thickens. 

Much like a brand, message needs to be sold to an audience. Campaign managers are craftily constructing their political-brand on a daily basis in both mainstream and social media. This constructs a Barthesian myth (Barthes, 1957) around the candidate: a ‘positive’ message that you can buy in to. Various niches or groups in society are targeted. They need to be convinced that this particular candidate, with his discourse and his moral biography, is to be trusted to do good for them. The construction of message is always chronotopic (Blommaert and De Fina, 2015): it is constructed in a specific time and space in which it makes sense for some, yet excludes others.

Trump is not just a clown or a 'moron', in the words of Bruce Springsteen, he does something right.

Message thus mobilizes linguistic and semiotic means in a specific cultural, political, economic, technological and historical context and should be analyzed as such. An analysis of message should focus on and be able to explain why a certain message – Trump’s message in this case– addresses and unifies audiences into masses. In doing so, it should focus on the ‘positive’ message produced; a message that his campaign team wants to portray in order to convince the groups they target. It also should neutralize the negative messages that hostile media and political adversaries construct of Trump. In the best case scenario, the negative messages transform into positive ones.

A good message is a message that aligns with the ‘spirit of time’, or more precisely put, with the dominant ideologies. Trump is not only a clown or a 'moron', in the words of Bruce Springsteen (Hiatt, 2016), he also does something right. Trump, like so many others before him, aims at the exact effects that successful advertisements achieve: a general appeal in which content is blended with esthetics, emotion, morality and sentiment. Trump sells his message. His discourse is attractive for a large part of the American people. But why? It’s time for an analytic review of the matter.


The eccentric businessman-celebrity  

If you want to know what the campaign team thinks is the ‘positive message’ to establish Trump in the political market, a visit to his website is a good start. Trump is introduced as "the very definition of the American success story", "a graduate", "an accomplished author" of more than "fifteen books", "a devoted supporter of veteran causes", and "a republican" who has "over 7 million followers on social media".  At the bottom of the ‘about’ page, we find that "Mr. Trump is the Emmy-nominated star and co-producer of the reality television series, 'The Apprentice'". His private life, only appears at the bottom. In no more than two sentences it is mentioned that he is born in Queens, married, and a father and grandfather.  

Trump builds his persona on what he is - a businessman - using the popular 'turnaround manager' character that is so prominent in U.S. imaginations of success.

The order of Trump’s biography is interesting. He is presented as a business man first. Not an ordinary businessman, but a very successful one: everything he touches seemingly turns into gold, and he is clearly not shy to say that he "is proud of it". Nobody mentions all his bankruptcies, nor the lawsuits against him. This positioning as a successful businessman creates the image of the maverick. Contrary to the establishment, he has a track record of leadership. We are pressured to believe that his identity as a businessman makes him enormously qualified to be a politician. The following paragraph of his biography is indicative of this:

“In 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, only 100 spectators watched New York City’s Veteran Day Parade. It was an insult to all veterans. Approached by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the chief of New York City’s FBI office, Mr. Trump agreed to lead as Grand Marshall a second parade later that year. Mr. Trump made a $1 million matching donation to finance the Nation’s Day Parade. On Saturday, November 11th, over 1.4 million watched as Mr. Trump marched down Fifth Avenue with more than 25,000 veterans, some dressed in their vintage uniforms” (Trump, 2016a).

This short anecdote pictures Trump as a true patriot, committed to his country and extremely supportive of veterans. He is thus depicted not only a successful business man, but also a business man who uses his capital to give the veterans the parade they deserve. Promoted is the idea that because of who he is, he succeeds where the politicians fail. This further advances the notion that politicians talk a lot, but do not realize anything.

If you compare Trump’s biography with Hillary’s 'about page' on her campaign website, the contrast immediately becomes clear. Hillary is a politician first, with a very long track record. She is very much part of the political establishment. What rationally should speak in her benefit – her knowledge in the political field – is what makes her vulnerable to criticism from the Republican campaign (e.g., unemployment in the US, the financial crisis, ISIS and so on). One of the strengths of Trump’s message is the ability to target Americans who distrust the establishment. For example, all the Americans that have been left behind after decennia of neoliberal politics and the financial crisis in 2008.


The celebrity manager

Donald Trump clearly is not integrated into the political establishment. He builds his persona on what he is: a famous celebrity-businessman, using the popular 'turnaround manager' character that is so prominent in U.S. imaginations of success. This is an important ingredient of his message. Just because he is a maverick, he and only he can change the ‘crooked’ establishment. Hillary – just because she has such a long political career - carries the burden of being responsible for the failed state of America. Trump positions himself as a political maverick untouched by power, a loved-figure in the American press and among the American audiences. His fortune, his plane, his hotels and real estate all communicate that he is ‘on top of the game’ - he is the one saying: "you are fired". But even more interestingly, they also frame him as ‘independent’ of the establishment.


Trump Tweet

Whereas Clinton, according to her Twitter–biography is first a "wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator, SecState, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado" and in last instance a "2016 presidential candidate" (Clinton, Twitter-bio, 19/09/2016), Trump is only himself – the independent, self-financed leader speaking 'the non-politically correct truth’. On his Twitter, there is not even a biography to be found. He doesn’t need an introduction anymore. He is Mr. Donald J. Trump and everybody is expected to know what that means. Trump is a world famous ‘brand’ and he himself, immodest as he is, has valued that brand at $3.3 billion dollars.

He is a major celebrity in a society that invented the celebrity. He not only uses his financial capital, but also his celebrity capital to position his message in this political race. He is a curiosity in the political game, and he can count on enormous mass of media-attention: from gossip and celebrity magazines, over comedians and his own social media to the serious political news magazine and shows. Trump’s superstar-dom' is a guarantee for ubiquitous media attention reaching all walks of life. 

Trump is inescapable. His celebrity-status and his image of an eccentric-billionaire not afraid to use hyperboles or utter controversial comments, opens up media doors. Not only that, he is expected be the antagonist. These contentious statements – what his opponents call lies, racism, sexism and gaffes - all add to the message of being the candidate who is not afraid to speak his mind: the politically ‘incorrect truths’ that upset the establishment.


The business man and the voice of the people

Trump’s discourse is framed as ‘the voice of the people’. His "America is back. I am your voice" (Trump, 2016b) slogan on his personal website demonstrates this. Trump pretends to say what 'Joe the Plumber' thinks, a voice that is absent in the political establishment. Such 'vox populism' is not new. In Europe, populism arose in a fast pace in the beginning of the nineties. Radical populist parties like the extreme-right Flemish Bloc in Belgium, or Fortuyn and Wilders in The Netherlands, all spoke in name of the people. "We say what you think" was one of the successful slogans of the Flemish Bloc.

Vox populism is a frame that distinguishes ‘the people’ from the elite. Such frame shapes ‘the people’ without defining it too explicitly; moreover, it is a very flexible concept changing meaning depending on the context. It is used in a self-explanatory way. This open construct of ‘the people’ enables many individuals to imagine themselves as being a part of the whole, and they support the candidate who seemingly voices their concerns.

On the other hand, it constructs ‘the political elite’. This elite is framed as (1) all powerful and (2) not listening to the ‘will of the people’. So everything that goes wrong in society is a consequence of politicians’ unwillingness to do something for the average Joe (Blommaert, 2001: 157). The political elite takes care of themselves, but also cares more for the migrants and the business class than for the common man. This frame ravaged through Europe and redefined democracy. Democracy became characterized as politicians uttering "the voice of the people" instead of a grand narrative on human rights, equality and freedom for all. This enabled the extreme-right to claim the title 'most democratic'. Although they declared they were 'the voice of the people', they said racist things and undermined human rights and democratic values (Maly, 2012 & 2016). Trump is now doing the same in the United States. Furthermore, all the critics are framed as the crooked elites who do not want to hear 'the voice of the people'.


Trump Home Page - I am your Voice


The fool, the communicator and ‘the truth’

Whenever you see or hear Trump talk, it’s hard not to think about the recent satirical comedy ‘Er ist wieder da. In this critical comedy, Hitler wakes up in 21st century in Berlin, Germany. Appearing as himself –including his haircut, moustache, military outfit and authoritative voice - in this new timeframe makes him quite out of place. Being shocked about him ‘looking like Hitler’ and ‘speaking like Hitler’, people can only make sense of him as ‘a clown’ or a controversial comedian. A young, recently unemployed freelancer, sees in the re-born Hitler a means to boost his career. In the search for ratings and clicks, the 21st century reborn Hitler became a controversial media-hit. Even more, his voice resonated with large parts of the audiences. They heard truth in his comedy.   

Trump crafted a very specific message: he is the successful, independent, billionaire-maverick who will help the common American. 

The clown, the comedian or the celebrity causing controversy, thrives in a hyper-commercialized media-field. They are ‘relevant’, they ‘know how to score’, they generate ‘clicks, likes, shares and followers’. Here is the parallel: Trump’s radical message, his hyperboles and his controversial statements, fit the formats of the old and new media.  Even though he tells lies, uses sexist and racist speech, he scores, and thus gains a lot of media-attention. Thompson already warned us last century that the commercialization of the news could,

“perhaps, provide fertile ground for the growth of a new kind of demagoguery: the sudden rise to power of a figure who is seemingly untouched by the scandals and murky dealings of professional politicians and their clientele, and whose appeal is rooted in part in a pervasive sense of disaffection and distrust” (Thompson, 1991).

That is exactly what Trump does. He targets the audiences that distrust politics and politicians. His biography, his discourse and his image – in short, his message – all say one thing: "I will speak up for you, 'the people', and I will change it all.  I am clean, I am independent, I am different, I can do it, even more, I have the money to do it". He alleges and asserts that he has ‘proven it’ before in business. His money, he says, makes him truly independent from the establishment and that fact scares them. "That’s why they laugh at me and call me a liar, a racist and a moron: I’m not politically correct". Trump crafted a very specific message: he is the successful, independent, billionaire-maverick who will help the common American. 

Trump’s message taps into the frustrations and discontent with specific semiotic means, those of cleverly constructed advertisement-formatted communication. Silverstein (2003) stresses that “A really powerful 'message' ascribes to me –as opposed to describes- my reality. It allows my audience to imagine a whole set of plausible stories in the fictive universes of the must-have-been, the could-be, and especially, the sure-as-hell-will-be (I’ll vote for that!).” 

Instead of assuming he does not make sense, we see the opposite: he does make sense for thousands and even millions of people. While liberals read his performance as a gaffe, or consider he only talks in generalities, his fans think he has communicated profound thoughts. They recognize themselves in his communicative act: He is 'our guy'. 

It is not a coincidence that linguists conclude that Trump is a very good communicator i.e., that his message is carefully crafted and that each word matters. Lakoff (2016) says, Trump "is simply using effective discourse mechanisms to communicate what he wants to communicate to his audience. I have found that he is very careful and very strategic in his use of language". We must recognize - dangerous as it may be - that he has the ability to create favorable conditions for the uptake of his message. From the power of suggestion to the creation of feelings of empathy and intimacy, Trump masters it all.


In his first contribution Ico Maly focuses on the negative messaging: 'Is Donald Trump a 'dangerous clown'? In his last article Maly focuses on discursive strategies: How did Trump get so far?


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