By Konrad Foote
When the metaphorical chips are down for the President, he routinely circles back to a technique that he used to great effect during the campaign – the effective use of hyperbole. Polarising opinion through by making overblown controversial and often contradictory statements – ensuring the attention of the 24-hour newscycle whilst being indefinite enough to be interpreted in many different ways.
As Salena Zito (The Atlantic) so aptly said,
“The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally”
Whether regarding the NFL, illegal immigration, or restaurants, Candidate Trump, now President Trump, has been able to weaponise the interpretation of his hyperbolic fallacy to his strategic advantage. With a ‘full caps’ 3am Tweet, Trump is able to command the day’s newscycle and start the snowball of argument rolling. By 10am, all manner of pundits have chimed in, providing both sides of the isle arms by which to debate. For the rest of the day American ‘water-cooler conversation’ is centered on his latest action – all focus is on Trump. Brilliantly tactical press manipulation.
During the President’s overseas visit to Europe, he issued a classic response to a question asking who America’s “foe” is globally at the moment. After stating “we have a lot of foes” he went to say “Russia in certain respects”, “China’s a foe economically”, the European Union as a foe “in what they do to us in trade, you wouldn’t think about the European Union, but they’re a foe”.
This response to the CBS News interview set-off a tidal wave of articles, all of which played into his agenda. The reason for this, the way both his supporters and detractors reacted to his statements, fuelling the cultural divide between the two camps.
For those predisposed to oppose Trump, classifying America’s closest foreign policy allies as ‘foes’ seems incredibly illogical, unpresidential and counter to the last 75 years of US positioning as the Leader of the Free World. Indeed, it could be considered fundamentally disturbing, especially in light of his recent seemingly negative comments about NATO members and is Helsinki Press Conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, this is judging Trump in the context of the traditional diplomacy from the long-line of US Presidents post World War II – with his comments seemingly both alienating those nations America should be seen to support, and rejecting the international institutions and foreign policies that the USA established and has long cultivated.
However, the other side of the cultural schism in US politics is that time has changed – it’s now all about putting USA first – not as a leader of the free world – but as the only real priority. So, supporters saw Trump’s listing of various ‘foes’ within the context of different parameters as the reason they like his presidency. If one asked MPs in Brexit negotiations who their foe is, they’d likely give a similar response when it came to trade. Indeed, this sentiment is definitely held by UKIP’s leader during the referendum, Nigel Farage, a figure who joined Candidate Trump’s 2016 campaign to argue to positives of nationalistic populism against the ‘establishment’.
Trump’s supporters agree with his desire to produce a stance against those they deem the previous administration was soft toward, whether that was the establishment, immigration, or trade negotiations. In response, Trump has repeatedly made the call to ‘Drain the Swamp’, ‘Build a Wall’, and reform America’s trade deals. Calling the EU a foe in trade is music to his supporters ears – for them, he is actually standing up for ‘Merica against the (European) Establishment. A reason they supported his candidacy.
In practice, Trump’s actual actions as President don’t seem to be inherently successful in being able to positively impact his base. For example, the recent Tax Cut has had falling popularity after his populist base realised they – on the most part – are not the beneficiaries of the plan. However, Trump gathers his support through his Twitter account – so his MAGA hat supporters can excuse the lack of action because he is still speaking their mind, and he is still able to use his platform to navigate political conversation in a way they support.
Most people tend to perceive news through the lens they agree with. People choose their news outlet – aligned to their world view – accepting the news they’re provided, whether in or out of context, irrespective of how words are edited, or how commentary blurs the original statement from either side. This has been and is actively used to great effect by the 45th President to increase public outrage, and hopefully rile up his base, all to inspire a mid-term ‘victory’. In 2016 he saw his ability to inspire outrage and anger as the key to his success against the more likely Democratic candidate, he sees a similar tactic as his only hope to inspire success in the mid-terms.
Say what you might about the policies, intellect or personality of President Trump – but his ability to manipulate the media, set the news agenda, and weaponise interpretation is nothing short of impressive.