Trump: populism’s perfect storm
Trump ran a campaign almost devoid of traditional policy statements or even a definable political ideology. A study of campaign messages found that Trump did not post clear issue statements on his website during the critical period of the 2016 primary campaign, although his main Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, did (Oates and Moe, 2017, p. 213). The Oates and Moe study also found that Trump rarely tweeted specifically about policy, although he and his supporters tweeted in large volume about non-policy-specific ideas that could be considered populism, especially around Trump’s vow to ‘build a wall’ to control immigration. It was clear from both the nature of Trump’s tweets and those who tweeted about the candidate that his campaign followed the central tenet of populism as ‘a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups’ (www. lexico.com/en/definition/populism).
Its important here to note that Trump s campaign went beyond merely striving to appeal to people on a populist issue, in that Trump also routinely used misinformation in his campaign. For example, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, he characterised immigrants as lawless individuals who were stealing jobs from American citizens. Paradoxically, his tactics gave him an unprecedented amount of media coverage as the US media not only reported the misinformation but also attempted to correct it (Patterson 2016). Clinton, pursuing a policy-based rather than a populist campaign, struggled to gain the same attention as Trump. Perversely, her perceived misdeeds were amplified, even when evidence later suggested that her leaked emails in the final moments of the campaign came from foreign adversaries (Patterson 2016; Jamieson 2018). By running a populist campaign with a misinformation playbook, Trump garnered far more coverage and less serious criticism than Clinton.
There are two elements here that suggest Trump’s victory could rewrite the rules of US campaigns in terms of how candidates fight for office and how their messages are amplified in the traditional and social media. In the first place, can a rational, policy-based candidate have the same appeal as a populist candidate who tailors his message to what an audience would like to hear (rather than suggesting realistic policies)? The second issue is that both traditional and social media engaged more with the misinformation than with a rational discussion of policies and respect for facts. It is not surprising that this was the issue on social media, where a lack of moderation as well as design that favours sensation over information have been well documented by analysts such as Vaidhyanathan (2018).
The libertarian media system was not effective at averting an election campaign from being overwhelmed by a propaganda campaign rife with misinformation in 2020 in the United States. The libertarian media system dictates that media should provide the consumers with the news they will find most interesting and engaging. It is a system that relies heavily on the ability of the citizen, rather than the journalists, to filter news. The US media system failed particularly to stem populism overwhelming an informed campaign and electorate on two major fronts. First, traditional journalists did not provide equal coverage to the two candidates. According to Patterson, the media consistently gave Trump both more coverage and less criticism than Clinton. At the same time, by the 2016 election, those who were inclined to support Trump’s populism over more traditional policymaking and ideology were likely to be alienated from traditional, fact-based journalism. According to a study by Benkler et al. (2018), a right-wing media bubble was firmly established by the 2016 elections. Interestingly, while Clinton supporters still consumed news across a range of media sites, Trump supporters were increasingly isolated in an echo chamber anchored by news sites such as Fox News, Infowars, and Breitbart. Many of the news sites used by Trump supporters were likely to combine support for Trump with misinformation about his opponents.
This far-right alternative sphere was further isolated and strengthened by social media information algorithms, which encourage users to consume like-minded media content. Benkler et al. argue that information communication technology' needs to be understood both within the context of political institutions and through change over time. By analysing the linkages between online news sources and Twitter, they found that Trump supporters isolated themselves within self-reinforcing information bubbles and rejected traditional journalistic content characterised by objectivity, lack of bias, truthfulness, and verification. Benkler et al. see this as the culmination of decades of media changes and political development in the Republican Party, accelerated by the affordances of the online sphere. Their analysis is useful evidence of the need to consider the role of information communication technology' within political contexts. If the changes in the media environment wrought by technology' had a set effect on information consumption, we would expect the changes to be essentially the same across both the right and the left. However, as Benkler et al. demonstrate, populism only became entrenched and powerful on the right in the United States.
Although Trump’s election based on misinformation-fuelled propaganda may have appeared to change campaign norms in the United States, there are important caveats. Trump actually lost the popular vote in 2016, winning because his pattern of support gave him the majority of Electoral College votes. In addition, there were several factors aside from propaganda that significantly helped Trump to victory. First, Clinton was surprisingly unpopular as a grudging compromise candidate who had endured a grueling primary battle with the more liberal and charismatic Senator Bernie Sanders. Her long history as first lady and secretary of state left opponents — and even possible supporters — with plenty of complaints about perceived or real failures of personality or character. At the same time, Trump’s campaign was more aggressive at exploiting the features of social media that could target undecided voters in key states. Finally, given that most of the media and many pundits did not seriously believe that Trump could win, particularly given his racist and sexist comments as well as his complete lack of political experience, many unenthusiastic Democrats didn’t bother to vote.
Yet overall, there was a significant underestimation of the power of Trump’s combination of populism and misinformation to inspire voters to ‘Make American Great Again’. Trump’s victory is a compelling example of how populism and misinformation can craft an intoxicating form of‘rewired’propaganda. After 2016, the question is whether this has permanently altered the terms of engagement for political campaigning in the United States. Given the attraction of desire over reason in Trump’s campaign, does this signal the end of policy-based campaigning in the United States and the start of an era of electoral propaganda?