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Today is the eve of the most bitter, rancorous and ominous US presidential election in living memory. I stress ‘living memory’ by the way, because many nineteenth century US elections were equally filthy – but that’s a subject for another day.
Whatever the result, it’s clear that the communications rules have been rewritten – or have they? Until this year, the orthodox assumption has been that carefully crafted, focus-group approved messages persuaded voters. On the flipside of that, any ‘gaffe’ or deviation would prove fatal, as it did for Mitt Romney with his infamous ‘47%’ comment in 2012.
This year, Trump proved that the most brazen lies were acceptable to millions of electors. Commentators seem stumped by how this has been possible. But to me, it’s less surprising – especially if you consider how other demagogues succeeded in the past.
Essentially, it can be summed up in one acronym: CAPES. This stands for Conviction, Authenticity, Promise, Empathy and Simplicity, the five pillars of a persuasive message. In every speech, Trump delivered these in truckloads.
He’s utterly convinced of his own brilliance and ability – and his conviction inspires complete confidence in his audience. This conviction becomes more compelling by its obvious authenticity; there’s no acting or mask involved here. His belief in his message is obvious. But his real skill appears after he shamelessly does a 180° degree policy turn. You can be sure he’ll appear to believe in his new position just as earnestly.
Then comes the most important ingredient: the promise. There’s no shilly-shallying or maybe-ing. Trump unequivocally promises to build a wall. Or jail Clinton. Or withdraw from trade deals. It’s a clear look-you-in-the-eye-‘this-product-will-improve-your-life sales pitch. And this promise works because it’s made to those who want to hear it.
Trump knows his audience’s pain points. Whether these are boarded-up coalmines in West Virginia or Latino immigration in Arizona, he expresses empathy by agreeing with the perceived cause of his audience’s grievance. Then he promises a solution – and importantly, a simple solution.
This takes us to the final ingredient in the mix. As Brexit proved, nuance doesn’t win elections. Simple slogans that boil issues down to few words do. Great if they’re true – but truth has been an optional extra in 2016 electioneering.
If you're reading this after 8 November and President Trump isn’t installed in the White House, this analysis might seem quaint. ‘That buffoon never had a chance of being elected” will hopefully be your knowing comment. But while the result still hangs in the balance and the threat of Trump is still real, the power of CAPES in moulding opinion (and potentially changing history) can’t be denied.