There’s something going on when Trump says, “There’s something going on.”
As our country acquires a growing distaste for career politicians, political outsiders have taken this election season by storm, forever changing the rules of American politics. While political pundits sit around scratching their heads—rethinking everything they thought they knew about the roadmap to the White House—we’ve become fascinated by the unconventional communication strategies that have emerged. Predictably, no one has been more defiant of the traditional rules of politics than Republican presidential hopeful Donald J. Trump.
As a real-estate mogul with more experience judging beauty pageants than writing policy, it comes as no surprise he’s opted for an unusual approach to rake in the votes. Rather than run from the fact that he lacks the usual credentials of presidential candidates, Trump has embraced these flaws as the great differentiator between himself and the “politically correct.” His entire campaign has been run on the expectation that Americans have become so fed up with the “corruption in Washington” that they will vote solely on their disgust of the “crooked political insiders” and desire to get new “untainted” blood into the Oval Office. While this sort of assumption defies all conventional political wisdom, the strategy behind Trump’s campaign is as old as Aristotle—appeal to the emotions of your audience. In the 4th century communications guidebook, Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that one mode of persuasion involves “awakening emotion (pathos) in the audience so as to induce them to make the judgment desired.” Trump has truly taken a page out of Aristotle’s book and has learned to speak directly to his audience’s emotions, transforming them into supporters. Throughout this election season, Trump has mastered the art of political innuendos in order to promote what has come to define his response to any major event that shakes America: conspiracy theories.
Following the December 2nd San Bernardino shooting, Trump attacked President Obama saying, “Radical Islamic terrorism—we have a president who refuses to use the term. There is something going on with him that we don’t know about.” In June, one day after the worst mass shooting in US history where 49 people were killed in an Orlando night club, Trump implied that Obama might have been connected with the attack. “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or he’s got something else in mind,” Trump said. “There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.” These four simple words have become one of Trump’s favorite catch phrases and constant refrains. What exactly does he mean? Trump may not even know himself—but then again, he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is raise suspicion, open up the possibility that someone can
t be trusted, and persuade voters that they can rely on him to “get to the bottom of it.”
His casual approach to conspiracies deters him from any liability because his claims lack any content to challenge. Trump understands that any specific accusation could be easily disproved. By simply repeating these four words after every perceived government failure, he avoids tying himself to the wildest of anti-government theories. Instead, he launches an out-of-control spiral of conspiracies that only Trump himself can stop. This calculated approach has also allowed him to connect with the average voter. By speaking as if he were their neighbor chatting about the latest gossip, Trump is relating to working class Americans by exploiting the common mistrust of traditional institutions. His supporters call this bravery; his opponents, lunacy. Whatever you call it makes no difference, as the conspiracies Trump initiates with this phrase have proven to be an effective communications strategy throughout his campaign.
Conspiracy theories are head turning but often easily laughed off by his detractors, so why is Trump’s brand of conspiracy so effective, even when making the most ridiculous claims—like the one in which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered? His theories, like any good conspiracy theory, appeal to the human need for knowledge, certainty, and order. Against a tragic landscape of US headlines over the past year, Americans are desperately trying to make sense of senseless acts. By suggesting that “there is more to the story,” Trump is providing an outlet for their anger and a direction to focus their blame: the powerful politicians in Washington. Angry Americans confused at what is happening to their country find solace in a man who questions the establishment, and Trump satisfies their need to believe there are answers to these unfathomable events. It is a human tendency to distrust rising elites, and by opening up the possibility of conspiracy, Trump validates these views of the world.
Will conspiratorial narratives define American politics for years to come? This election cycle has taught us that conspiracies are particularly attractive to primary voters, but we have yet to see if Trump’s headline-grabbing discourse will be fortuitous in the general election. Can America really be made great again by fear mongering? Only time, and votes, will tell.
LEVICK Fellow Kelsey Chapekis contributed to this post.