Why Trump won: a communication perspective


The USA wakes up today (this article was originally written on 9 November 2016) with a newly elected president, Donald Trump, and the world thinks it’s living a nightmare: wasn’t this candidate the one that The New York Timespredicted as having only a 15% chance to win on the eve of the election? Wasn’t this candidate who made us laugh out loud on Saturday Night Live, the candidate that in 2011 stoically participated in an episode of Comedy Central Roast and was chastised with insulting jokes? How come the clown, the evildoer, the crazy Donald won?

Well, guess who is laughing all the way to the White House (paraphrasing Liberace’s famous words)? The Donald.

From the perspective of the theory of communication, I’d like to mention three important factors that help to explain why this victory shouldn’t come as total surprise.

1)   I read a tweet that beautifully (a Trumpian word) encapsulates my first point. It says “Newspaper endorsements… don’t matter”. This is a reflection on the shrinking power of the traditional media, overwhelmingly against Trump, but that ultimately lost influence in this case. Is this something new? Don’t we know that the media landscape is highly fragmented and with the internet the press doesn”t have the same power to shape narratives or to perform its role as gatekeepers?

2)  In a world with less dependency on the principle of “nurturing relationship” with the big names of the press, what did Trump do then? He occupied the social media world and ignited his supporters with his infamous and hyper-active Twitter account. I would like to know if anyone has made some projections based on social media conversations/noise, a technique that today is used to balance the traditional pools – another loser in this election (again, like in Brexit). I believe you could figure out the result based on that data.

3)   Finally, after examining the power of the channels, let’s analyse the behaviour of the voters, the recipients and producers of information (or rumours, if you prefer) from a cognitive psychology perspective. Once again, the theories of self-immunization and cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1954; Festinger, 1957) were confirmed. The cognitive dissonance theory states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behaviour. According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement). The self-immunisation theory refers to the ability of the person to find reasons to justify their behaviour in face of criticism, the same way a vaccine works with our immune system. The two theories combined explain the incredible resistance of Trump’s voters – despite stern criticism from the media – and even from friends. His supporters not only justified (rationalized) their options, but grew stronger in light of the criticism.

In conclusion, in today’s incredibly polarised, and sometimes radically opinionated social media world, the candidate who knows how to connect with the voters directly has more chance to win if he/she does this with passion (ironically, Obama was a clear example in 2008, which was not the case of Hillary Clinton now). Trump succeeded in doing this through a long and brutal campaign as the underdog, but not as an apprentice, and won against all the odds.

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