Trump’s presidency will be fertile ground for communication research

The election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States of America has dominated much of the news in recent times. It has also been the subject of much analysis by the academic community who, like most of the media, did not predict a Trump win. On November 9th, 2016, the website, The Conversation, published an article entitled, “Donald Trump wins US election: scholars from around the world react”.

In this article it is suggested that Trump will probably take a very aggressive stance against Mexico; that Trump’s rise to power may put an end to liberal democracy as propagated by the US and its western allies in the post-Cold War era; that relations between the US and Israel under Trump may be smoother than under Obama, but less secure; that Trump’s presidency will clear away any remaining resistance to China’s rise to regional preeminence; and, that Trump’s election will strengthen neo-conservative, fundamentalist networks.

Subarno Chattarji, from the University of Delhi states that Trump’s victory is “indicative of the insecurities and resentments of the majority and the desire to return to a purer, better, ‘original’ America, which was largely white and where everyone knew their place”. William Case from City University Hong Kong opines that “with Donald Trump in the White House, Southeast Asia’s entry into China’s orbit will quicken. Indeed, his repudiation of trading relations and security commitments seems to leave countries in the region with no alternative. And his anti-Muslim vitriol will add steam, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines”.

These initial reactions by academics from across the globe immediately following Trump’s election were not optimistic for the future. Given that there was little substance on policy issues in Trump’s campaign, much of the material for analysis was clearly the public communication promulgated by Mr Trump and his formidable communications team.

During the campaign, Donald Trump positioned himself as the man who would make America great again. His success can be traced in part to his assertion that he had the answer to the problem. It was a problem that he had defined – that America was no longer great. This concept was very open to interpretation and difficult to pin down. There were a myriad of potential ways for audiences to interpret Trump’s claimed position as the President who would ‘fix’ things.

For those US voters who had experienced personally negative impacts on their lives in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, things clearly weren’t as ‘great’ as they once were. They could tie the Trump ‘great again’ narrative to their own hopes for a return to better times. For those who interpreted Trump’s meaning to be one where the sub-text was implying that anyone or anything he viewed as ‘non-traditional American’ was a threat to the nation’s greatness, Trump’s messaging was framed as racist, sexist, Islamaphobic or homophobic.

The way that Donald Trump self-positioned as the man who would make America great again both rallied and divided the population. We still have much to learn about the way such self-positioning works. Research shows positioning is an ongoing task requiring continuous attention and maintenance, not just by an individual but also from networks. Communities who perceived their lives weren’t as “great” as they once were could tie the Trump ‘great again’ narrative to their own hopes for a return to better times.

For anti-Trump supporters, Trump’s messaging was amplified through their networks as negative. As Trump transitions into the Presidency his position as ‘fixer’ may become more secure and he’ll be less reliant on his supporting network. However, if his supporters don’t see him deliver ‘the fix’, he will need that support more than ever, and this network is unlikely to remain strong. This presidency will be fascinating for examining personal and network positioning-power in communication, and will provide all areas of public relations research with fertile ground for exploration.

Reference:

Batongbacal, J., Case, W., Chattarji, S., Diamint, R., Grzebalska, W., Latouche, M.A., Maher, R., Peto, A., Rynhold, J., Sombatpoonsiri, J. and Vázquez del Mercado, S. (2016). Donald Trump wins US election: scholars from around the world react. The Conversation. 9-10 November, 2016. Link to article.

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