On June 16th, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Presidency and U.S. Politics, with all of its ceremonial practices and normative restrictions, changed. Suddenly a President – and a candidate, although campaign language has always been known to be somewhat inimical to the truth – could suggest that what was illegal was legal, that the representative of the nation did not have to restrict the reach of his opinions, that he did not have to be held accountable for his statements, and that all enemies were liars. He not only changed the status and role of the president, but he also broke silences around nativist social and political attitudes. It was suddenly OK to explicitly say Mexicans were lazy, rapists, murderers, stealing American jobs. Even if the sentiment had been implied for years, couched in the veiled terms of “illegal immigrants” (it reminds one of Schrodinger’s immigrant – simultaneously lazy and stealing your job). But what was so persuasive about all of this?
Formally he did what any good campaigner does. He recognised the situation as a battle, and he created momentum by being a figure onto which many people could project their fantasies – fantasies of finding solutions to the countries’ many problems. Sometimes the problems were fantasies themselves. His language, and its meandering, unclear forms, could echo many different kinds of sentiments.
Trump’s campaign language provided these “solutions” by drawing upon already existing associations that he knew his voters would pick up on – implied associations of threat, terror, and policies that have undermined the country’s potential (implying that he could find the solution), eventually not even explaining how this has happened or why but creating complicity with his speakers by insisting on a shared knowledge – the fact that he could understand their “common sentiment”.
The persuasion lay hidden in the creation of a sense of belonging to a group of “those who know the truth”. The unclear associations of meaning became memetic – once he said “Mexicans” to his listeners 3 months after his first speech, his crowd could easily discerned the associated traits and definitions. These memetic terms were simultaneously vague enough and specific enough to his field of imagery and associated meaning to become the most persuasive weapons in the 2016 Presidential Elections. Understanding this field of imagery and meaning implied having an inner-knowledge – authentic and hidden “truths”. And only some people, his electorate, and himself, could gauge these – according to him.
Once the explicit positions between himself and all possible other candidates were established, it was just a question of continuing to insist that he knew what normal Americans knew – unlike Clinton, Cruz, and just about everybody else. Even if this was never clear – in the way dog-whistling is never clear, and in the way in which much of his confirmation or denial of things is never clear (A very recent case in point: Trump, as a candidate, simultaneously knew and didn’t know what someone should do if they receive information from a foreign state about their opponent) – it was nonetheless an effective technique.
Much of this is not new. But within 2016’s context, at the end of Obama’s presidency, Trump effectively postured as a “transgressive” candidate – and this was something different from past candidates. The main means of taking “transgressive” political stances is, in our era, more and more about inhabiting a grey space, speaking in ambiguity or at least in a deniable ambiguity – the sincerity is, often, in the insincerity of the statement.