Trump inauguration: the behavioural signals

Trump inauguration: the behavioural signals

Tom Laranjo compares Donald Trump's communication tactics with Barack Obama's.

Following Donald Trump’s election to US president in November I highlighted how Trump had valued the importance of emotion over reason to correctly diagnose the mood of American voters and capture the White House.

His inaugural speech suggests that knee-jerk reaction and emotion will continue to be the touchstones for oratory.

When comparing Trump’s inaugural speech with Obama’s first inaugural speech in 2009, some very interesting trends emerge, Obama makes a conscious choice to appeal to a broader electorate. This is demonstrated through his selection of language, the second most used word is "because" showing a clear urge to explain, educate and widen the tent.

In contrast Trump’s most used words are "America" and "protect", many commentators identified that it felt more like a campaign speech than an inaugural address, as he was clearly still talking to his supporter base.

Much has been made about Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway defending press secretary Sean Spicer’s argument that the Trump inauguration was the most attended ever, despite evidence that pointed otherwise. She suggested he gave "alternative facts" about the inauguration crowd – as another sign of post truth politics.

However a far more egregious use of "post truth" was in the speech itself. Trump has spent so long talking down the US economy that it is hard to remember that in contrast to Obama in 2009, he is inheriting a better world.

Obama identified trouble ahead but pointed out how America will overcome: "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America - they will be met."

Trump has spent so long talking down the US economy that it is hard to remember that in contrast to Obama in 2009, he is inheriting a better world.

Trump does the same, but only after having established a post truth reality: "But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities. Rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation. An education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge, and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential."

While Trump may not have facts on his side, he does have feelings and emotion. For his supporters in the heartland of the mid-west, south and rustbelt there is a feeling that things have got worse, but the overwhelming evidence is that, while not rich, many areas that voted for Trump are doing better than the national average when it comes to wages, GDP growth and unemployment.

However evidence isn’t what matters – those who voted Trump feel that their standard of living and that of those around them has gone down – and they feel left behind.

Trump appealed to this electorate in the campaign by identifying and naming the malaise that they felt and although he offers little concrete evidence in how he will fix this, his inauguration speech shows he will continue to prioritise emotion over reason.

His speech also shows the effectiveness of using simple language. As Daniel Oppenheimer in his book Democracy Despite Itself argues, using simple language makes people think you are smarter.

This is because the ease with which we process information is linked to our views about confidence and capability – if we understand what someone is saying without having to think about it then we have more confidence in them.

Trump’s strategy to effectively communicate to a heartland audience should sound familiar to advertisers. What Trump is doing is effectively identifying his core target audience and hitting them again and again with the same message. And he is making that message an emotive one which gives the consumer an immediate visceral reaction.

To a large extent it works, just as it does for brands. Those who argue that Trump should change and should act like a normal politician baffle me to some extent – currently there is no need for him to change, his formula works.

But, and there’s always a but, to take the brand analogy again, in the words of marketing specialist professor Byron Sharp, focussing on a niche audience stops you from growing your brand.

At some point he will need to bring people to him, whether it is to get something through the mainstream Republican Congress or to keep his mandate in the mid-term elections.

There is no better illustration of how the public mood has changed and how politicians have been able to read and shape it than the difference in rhetoric between Trump and Obama. Take this from Obama in 2009.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."

While Obama turned his back on grievances, Trump has used them to capture the mood of a nation.

Tom Laranjo is the managing director of Total Media.



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