When is the right time to think of an Elephant?


My favourite framing expert, George Lakoff, of ‘Don’t think of an Elephant’ fame suggests in this Salon interview that this is exactly where the Clinton campaign went wrong: they told people to think of an Elephant. By Elephant, I mean Trump. Lakoff says ‘The Clinton campaign decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that’s exactly what his followers liked about him. So of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters’.

I wrote about this Clinton strategy at the time, saying it was clever. I suggested it was a good narrative because no one, surely, could see Trump’s words and the images of children watching them and think ‘yeah, this guy is just the type of guy we want our children looking up to as President of the United States’. But I was wrong. As were the Democrats and just about everyone else who underestimated the strength of Trump supporters’ hatred of Democrats. We all underestimated how grateful these people would be to have Trump saying offensive things, consistently plumbing the depths of new lows. We all thought they liked Trump despite his offense, misunderstanding they liked him because of it.

So what does this mean for Democrat communication strategy now that they are the Opposition to a Trump Republican Presidency? How do the Democrats pick themselves up, brush themselves off and rebuild their narrative to make sure they beat Trump in 2020?

As much as I admire Lakoff and his theories on framing, I don’t think now is the time for the Democrats to stop talking about the Trump elephant. I also don’t think now is the time for the Democrats to stop talking about their own policy ideas and outlining their alternative vision for America’s future. What I’m advocating is a ‘let’s walk and chew gum at the same time’ strategy where Democrats call Trump out for his catastrophic failings, and when the time is right, remind people of their positive message, the opposite of Trump’s American-carnage story. The trick is to get the balance right between the two; to weave both the negative message about Trump and the positive message about the Democrats into a consistent, memorable and emotionally appealing narrative.

So what does such a narrative look like? In this narrative, Trump is the villain and the Democrats are the hero who will save Americans, the victims, from Trump.  Keeping in mind Lakoff’s advice about Trump supporters appreciating Trump’s offensive nature, the framing of the Trump villain is particularly important. Rather than focusing on Trump’s liberal-offending-characteristics, his bald-face-lying, anti-immigration, pussy-grabbing, con-artist, tax-dodging, Russian-loving flaws, Democrats need to focus on the villainous ways in which Trump is letting down his own supporters. Describe how he’s not saving jobs nor bringing back coal mines. Focus on his promises about an anti-establishment government which is, in reality, full of corporate elite-billionaires. Give examples of how the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act is hurting families who no longer have health insurance. Only when Trump supporters see the impact of a Trump presidency on their lives, as not just stoking the outrage of liberals who they don’t like anyway, will they begin to consider voting differently next time around.

How to be authentic


We all know authenticity is important in political communication. Trump gets a huge wrap from his supporters for ‘saying it like it is’, even when the content of his message is revolting. Pauline Hanson gets similar kudos for saying outlandish and often racist things which are ‘politically incorrect’ and therefore, somehow more worthy because they’re without censorship and therefore fall loosely into the bucket of ‘authentic’, a bucket which sits in a bath-tup of ‘the right way to communicate’.

I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it too. Surely to be authentic we don’t have to be gross and say nasty things and be anti-fact and make headlines by being provocative for the sake of being provocative? Surely we’re all better than that?

Yes, we are better than that.

In fact, you are so much better than that, I truly would prefer to hear what you say rather than what the ‘populist’, ‘anti-political-correctness‘ crowd says. I would prefer you grabbed that headline! But the thing is, if you’re not authentic about how you say what you say, no one is going to hear you.

Have you heard of the sniff test? Humans can smell inauthenticity a mile off. What traditionalists might call ‘the party line’, or what you might think of as being ‘well prepared with media training and a list of dot points about why you’re right and everyone else is wrong’, often, I’m really sorry to say, this careful way of communicating, comes across very wooden on our TV screens, monotonal on the radio, flat in print and downright beige on social media.

The enemy of wooden is authenticity. The antidote to woodiness is emotion. We are truly ourselves when we are emotional. And when we’re trying to hide emotion, well, then we’re not just wooden, but we’re the wooden-boy himself – Pinocchio – the one whose nose grows when he’s lying. I know you’re not lying but when you come across all wooden, to be emotively honest, the audience is waiting for your nose to grow. When people say ‘I like Trump, he tells it how it is’, that’s code for ‘he’s being honest and I agree with him’. Of course, he is, unfortunately, lying, but that’s by the by. Perception is reality folks. The important part is that people are listening to, and reacting to, what he has to say.

Obviously I’m not advocating the type of emotion that would see you thrown out of a pub for brawling, or weeping openly with a stream of snot dripping onto your shirt. I’m talking more about that emotion that comes from a passion in your convictions. You are working to further a progressive cause because you’re passionate about it. So tell us: why are you suggesting this policy change? Is it because you’re angry about the way things are now? Show us you’re angry! Do you find something a journalist said to you so outlandish that you want to laugh? Then laugh. Laugh out loud! Do you have a dry sense of humour? Use it! Are you quick witted, always ready to say something cutting? Cut away! Do you do an awesome face palm or an epic eye roll? Give us all you’ve got! Play to your unique strengths!

The best way to elicit an emotional, authentic, and memorable reaction from your audience is to give them one. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

The Emotional Appeal of Donald Trump


Since Trump’s victory, I’ve broken up with America, tried to understand why white women voted for him, and showed my displeasure at the media’s role in this clusterfuck. In this post, I’m trying to get my head around why masses of people voted for Trump against their best interests by trying to understand why such an on-paper inappropriate choice was chosen.

There is definitely an element of class warfare going on – a rejection of the elite city-dwelling establishment, a reaction to wealth inequality. (Trump is not the answer to wealth inequality by the way. But this problem might take many years for Trump’s voters to recognise, if they are ever willing to admit it. I’ll no doubt be writing about this many times in months and years to come as Trump enables his Republican colleagues to roll out neoliberal reforms that further smash the working class, the working poor, what remains of the middle class and the economy with it. I feel sorry for Americans that they’ve made such a bad choice, but I feel sorrier for the Clinton voters who didn’t).

Race and racism also made a large contribution, where white people voted to take back control of their country, or as Lakoff puts it, reassert their dominance in the moral hierarchy. And whether people will ever admit it or not, there is no doubt that gender played a part; that many Trump voters, both male and female, just can’t accept that a woman can be President.

So with all these factors playing a part, and for some voters, all three influencing their vote, you start to get a picture of how Trump benefited from this pincer-movement against Clinton and the Democrats.

Then, of course, there were Trump’s slogans. As we all no doubt noticed, there was little, if any, policy detail in Trump’s campaign. That’s not to say he didn’t say anything. He actually talked and talked and talked and tweeted and tweeted and ranted and raved (I’ll build a wall, it will be uuuugge, I’ll fix everything, great, it will be great, grunt, grunt, waffle, incomprehensible, Muslims get out). There were huge inconsistencies and contradiction in his statements, so there was a bit of something for everyone; he promised both to bomb ISIS, and to end America’s role as an international police force. He promised to cut taxes, but also spend up big on infrastructure projects (apart from the WALL) to create jobs (with what tax revenue?). Within Trump’s jumbled rhetoric, zig zag, a little from here, a little from there, neoliberalism mixed with protectionism, mixed with anti-globalisation, mixed with anti-elitist, mixed with a likely Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at the heart of Wall-Street’s Goldman Sachs and represents everything Trump claimed to be promising to clean up, there was a clear narrative thread in Trump’s campaign. The narrative sounded something like this:

‘Everything is shit, everything is broken, you have every reason to hate Washington because everything Washington has done has made everything shit and broken. Vote for me and I’ll wave a magic wand and everything will be immediately fixed. I might not be perfect, but my imperfection is just like your imperfection. I am real, and only someone real can fix all your problems. Vote for me, and, whether you like me or not, your lives will be perfect again’.

It sounds ridiculous when you look at it like this, that people believed he really could fix everything. But I wonder if it’s the lack of detail, the obvious flaws, the selling of all this as politically-incorrect and therefore authentic that made it work. Therefore, did Clinton’s opposite image – the polished, policy-detailed, emphasis on experience, emphasis on Obama’s legacy and all the good the government had done – turn Clinton’s words into white-noise, words that didn’t even get a look in when the big, ugly, colourful (orange particularly), rude, obnoxious celebrity was yelling ‘lock her up!’.

And this brings me to emotion. One of my favourite political scientists, Drew Westen, who writes a lot about how the Democrats can improve the way they communicate to voters, has this to say about the importance of emotion and authenticity in political campaigns:

‘Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions. Richard Wirthlin, an economics professor who engineered Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns of 1980 and 1984, realized that all the dispassionate economic assumptions he’d always believed about how people make decisions didn’t apply when people cast their ballots for Reagan. As he discovered, people were drawn to Reagan because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions’.

They identified with Trump? Yes, he was nothing like them, living in a New York gold-plated ivory tower, apparently representing everything they aren’t (rich). But they identified with his flaws, and identified with his message. Their lives felt shit. He said he could fix them. Simple. They liked his emphasis on values over policy? Apparently. No policy detail required, asked for, demanded, or even considered. They trusted him? After all the obvious lies, the obvious flip-flopping, the obvious inconsistencies, they still trusted him. Yes. It’s not rational. He told them Clinton couldn’t be trusted because she had caused all their problems. She’s fired! Lock her up! He promised everyone would pay less tax, which is a red-rag-to-the-bull for people who hate government, and don’t have much money. He promised to be the hero and save them. They had to trust him. He was their only hope. They found him authentic in his beliefs? See above. They emotionally needed to find him authentic, because the problems he talked about seemed authentic to their lives. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions? Yep. It didn’t matter if they didn’t even really understand his policy positions, or how contradictory they were. An emotional reaction. Not a rational one.

It’s time to stop treating voters like rational decision makers when all of us, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Labor, Liberal, Greens, Hansons and people who don’t vote at all, all of us make emotional decisions when voting. We don’t quantify benefits and check off the list of policies against our lives to decide which candidate offers us the greatest utility of outcomes. We are emotional beings. We get a vibe. We feel it. We like it. We stick to it like glue and ignore anything that contradicts it. We make it part of our identity. We chant in unison. We will not be convinced otherwise.

Obama’s emotional message of hope triumphed twice in the last eight years, and now Trump’s message of hate, of resentment, of fear, loathing, and disgruntlement has triumphed. If the Democrats are building themselves from the ground up, they have hopefully learned the importance of emotion.

This post was originally published on my blog: victoriarollison.com. You should visit there too!

What I learned through blogging

Open Letter to Frances Abbott

I’ve been writing a political blog for long enough to accumulate useful insights into the style and topics which get a reaction and those that are posted and sink without a trace.

Out of the 200 posts on my blog, the biggest reaction came from my Open Letter to Frances Abbott, which was read by over 400,000 Australians. This post didn’t take me long to write – it just flowed out of the outrage I felt about the situation; when it was revealed by a whistle-blower that then Prime Minister Abbott’s daughter Frances had been awarded a secret scholarship to attend the Whitehouse Institute – a scholarship apparently not available to her less-well-connected peers. Other posts I have spent hours researching and writing have been far less popular, such as this one, which only got a couple of thousand views.

So what have I learned about effective political communication from the stats page on my political blog?

  • An emotional, passionate response to a topic is much more likely to be shared, commented on, ‘Liked’ on Facebook and Tweeted, and for that reason, is going to be read by many more people. My ‘Open Letter to Frances Abbott’ went viral because the public shared the outrage I felt about the situation, and wanted to share this outrage with others. My emotional reaction therefore moved people to realise they were having the same emotional reaction. Bluntly, if people feel nothing for what you are saying, they will give you the ‘meh’ reaction of doing nothing about it. Emotion is everything. If people don’t feel anything about what you say or write, they won’t listen and they certainly won’t act.
  • Timing is important. Politics is happening and happening and happening all the time. Scandals erupt and die down continuously. The 24 hour news cycle eats stories up and spits them out as soon as there’s something new to chew. I got lucky with my letter to Frances Abbott. My post went up within 24 hours of the scandal breaking, so it caught the wave of outrage right at the moment people felt like sharing their outrage. And share they did.
  • New Matilda broke the story and no doubt this ‘news’ story went viral. But so too did my emotional reaction to this ‘news’. People don’t just want news. They appreciate sign posts of how to feel about it.
  • My painstakingly researched facts and figures might make me feel justified that I know all there is to know about a topic, and might satisfactorily portray why I came to feel the way I do about a person, policy, situation or political decision. But facts and figures, and all the research in the world, doesn’t make people ‘feel’ anything. That’s not to say that facts and figures can’t be useful. It’s always important to have your facts right and they can help to provide context. Partisan audiences particularly like them when they back up their preconceived ideas; in other words, when they allow them to feel the warm glow of ‘I was right, you were wrong’. But facts and figures should never be used in isolation because laundry lists of rational, expert derived, peer-reviewed, evidence based statements don’t grab and hold attention like an appeal to emotion.

Chat to me about how to incorporate these insights into your next communication opportunity.