Trump’s communication techniques, frames of analysis, and democracy

Several months ago I said that I would do some analysis of Trump and the American election. Up until now I have refrained from doing any kind of analysis or reflection, primarily because I feel the conversation is so saturated that nothing I had to say would be particularly interesting or novel. But now I have an idea, so here it goes.

Recently I stumbled upon a YouTube channel called Charisma on Command. Basically the channel breaks down ways in which you can be charismatic and persuasive (including analysis of why certain Game of Throne characters do well and others do not, if your into that sort of thing). In May 2016 the channel posted a video predicting that Donald Trump would win the American election, and proceeded to break down the communication techniques and strategies that Trump was using and why they were beating those techniques being used by Hillary. The analysis is quite interesting, but what struck me was that technique is not something I have seen much discussed in public dialogue as to why Trump beat Hillary. Most analysis that I have seen has been primarily ideological/economic, proposing that Trump won because of disenfranchised rust-belt voters, democrat hubris, and various other accounts. There just has not been much talk about the idea that Trump won and Hillary lost because Trump was a better communicator who successfully controlled the election agenda. I think that there are two interesting things to take away from this. First, I think it shows how theory/frame sets the ways in which events are interpreted and explained. Second, it is possibly the case that the ‘technique’ frame is avoided because it undermines the democratic frame.

I am using the term ‘frame’ here pretty loosely to refer to the broad assumptions that are being made about how the world works. In the American election, I suggest that the assumptions that have been made are something like this: beliefs and economic circumstances are the important factors that determine an election. Candidate’s win or lose based on their moral characteristics and the degree to which they represent the public.

Contrast this with the frame that captures Charisma on Command’s interest. The primary ethos of the channel is that charisma can be captured through teachable techniques (this being how the channel makes its money). The primary focus of the video on Trump is breaking down the methods through which he succeeds. This kind of explanation is almost a-historical – Trump won because he was a good public speaker and tactician, shifting tactics and ideology to suit the different audiences he needed to win. This is potentially anti-democratic because it seems to undermine the democratic assumption that voting places authority in the hands of the people – if elections are won on the back of rhetoric and technique, than democracy entails rule by the rhetorician, not the public. I said before that this frame is possibly avoided because it undermines the democratic frame. By this I do not mean that it is inconceivable that both technique and ideology play a role in democratic life. However, trust is a keystone in democracy – the system functions in part because people believe in it. I therefore think it is unsurprising that the technique frame is rarely explored in public channels.

Let me know what you think!


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