It’s the first thing they say in the world of the showman: know your audience. If nothing else, Donald Trump knew his audience and how to communicate with them. And I’m not talking about racists or sexists or homophobes or any other type of bigot. What the Democrats missed (colossally, gravely) is that technology has changed the electorate — it’s shaped the scope of persona the general public has the cultural capacity to process.
The average American — inundated with homemade videos on YouTube and in-your-face reality TV personalities — doesn’t understand the bureaucratic talk of politicians anymore. Every day, they’re looking at real, raw people who’ve posted unfiltered videos of themselves on the internet; they’re packing a punch with fervent opinions in 140 characters or less; and they expect any other person “putting themselves out there” to be exactly what that person presents — or, at least, to come across in a way they can easily identify.
This is why nearly half of our country never really understood Hillary. The homegirl’s just a little too subtle and complicated for average America. And not in a cool, MTV way. Although people who stand by her grasp the former secretary of state’s sincere dedication to bettering peoples’ lives, she operates in a manner and lingo of a now bygone era that doesn’t translate to the “this is me, baby,” up-close-and-personal culture of contemporary America.
With the incessantly morphing landscape of the internet, there’s just no time in these Americans’ worlds to try to decipher the bigger picture, read between the lines or reach for a level of understanding that illuminates the prize beneath the wrapping. They require public figures to be direct, explicit and unmistakable — in both message and personality.
This is why both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gained unprecedented momentum during the 2016 election season. Despite their disparate stances and world views, they tapped into the way contemporary Americans are used to relating to people on screens: candidly, without the need for interpretation or decryption.
You could feel their messages in the gut; you could see that they were both saying exactly what they meant; and there was no mistaking who they were: Trump was Trump and Bernie was Bernie.
This is something Americans submerged in online personalities all day could totally “get.” They could immediately identify the persona of each contender; not just by words, but on a visceral level.
In fact, most of Trump’s supporters said they didn’t even care what his remarks were or how much he went back and forth on his stances (or glaringly lied about not saying something everyone witnessed him say the day before). What they connected to were his attitude, personality and raw fervor — all things their psyches were habituated to processing on a daily basis through surrounding online media … In this world, politeness doesn’t count and authenticity (even dirty authenticity) is king.
Check out the difference between Trump’s words and Hillary Clinton’s style of speech. (… But please, let’s all remember that it’s really Trump who “knows words, the best words!”):
Trump and Clinton were both quoted on the same day on the same subject, Trump before the release of Comey’s letter and Clinton afterward:
Trump: “The system is rigged when Hillary Clinton is allowed to run for President … The FBI rolled over, and the Department of Justice rolled over.”
Clinton: “It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election. In fact, it’s not just strange. It’s unprecedented, and it is deeply troubling.”
Trump’s comment is unmistakable. It’s direct, clear and explicit. Just take a look at his verbs: “rigged,” “rolled over,” (and again) “rolled over.” All basic concepts anyone can digest instantly.
Clinton’s language, however, leaves something to be desired — or, rather, thoughtfully extracted by listeners. It puts the onus on her audience to figure out the intention behind her statement instead of delivering it directly without wriggle-room for interpretation. In fact, her quote is completely in the passive voice: “It’s pretty strange,” “It’s unprecedented,” “it is deeply troubling.” Clearly, there’s strong sentiment behind these phrases, but it’s watered down, not instantly graspable.
But, let’s not jump to conclusions and say you have to use the language of a third-grader to reach the American populace. Bernie still used intelligent sentences with more advanced concepts (“oligarchy” was one of the most-Googled words of the race, thanks to Bernie’s speeches) while still extensively galvanizing the public.
In Bernie’s words, “There is a lot of sentiment that enough is enough, that we need fundamental changes, that the establishment — whether it is the economic establishment, the political establishment or the media establishment — is failing the American people.”
And perhaps that’s the most important point of all: the two most rousing figures of the whole election season both ran on an anti-establishment platform, with anti-establishment personalities — communicating in a way that spoke directly to people’s gut instincts. They didn’t dance around messages, and they certainly didn’t water down their own personalities to placate others.
Trump, of course, took it one step further: he branded people — both his friends (or so-called friends) and enemies were given simple, distinct labels. Putin was “strong,” Hillary was “crooked,” and the establishment was “rigged.” He packaged up his attacks in neat little boxes for people to easily consume. And his buyers couldn’t get enough of them.
Ironically, even though both Sanders and Trump came across as anti-establishment figures, Bernie had worked in politics for decades (albeit with uncommon views) and Trump was — and has always been — the epitome of established money at the top of the economic bracket. But, each of them could speak the new language of the people: authenticity.
The current electorate is seeking, begging for — commanding — communication outside of the “safe zone.” The Democrats need to face this fact. If the Democrats want to win, we’ve got to be bold and put ourselves out there now.
Time to stop hiding behind safe sentences and “put together” appearances. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain if we give everything we truly are.