Liberal Luvvies Urged to Dial Down Trump Grumps

Claims that the masses fail to understand the reality only plays into populists’ hands. Repetition of bare facts and meaningless statistics is unlikely to win people round.

If the BAFTAs are anything to go by, this week’s Oscars ceremony will be used as a political platform to rail against Donald Trump and the rise of populism in the US and UK. But, should Meryl Streep or Emma Stone get their well-groomed hands on a statuette at the showbiz event of the year, they may be wise to dial down their criticisms of POTUS and his cronies.

Though accusations of ignorance and bigotry may well be justified, attacks from high-profile luvvies are in danger of reinforcing the very factors that allowed Trump and Farage to succeed in the first place. They can inadvertently lend credence to the perception that a disconnected, liberal elite use lofty platforms to champion a world view that is completely out of sync with ‘real’ people.

After all, mass publicity for the $260,000 Oscar goodie bag and Instagram feeds bursting with A-list selfies do little to suggest that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence have much in common with a disgruntled salt miner in Utah or a struggling farmer in Norfolk.

So, what is wrong with actors using their position to polemicise?

At a basic level, A-list outbursts only add fuel-to-the-fire for tabloid mockery, including the Sun’s Trump Grump rating.

A recent analysis piece in the Washington Post paints a more serious picture. It draws an analogy between Donald Trump in the US with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – politicians at very different ends of the political spectrum, but both adept at using populism to their advantage. The author uses the comparison to provide useful advice to his ‘American friends’, which has more than passing relevance for communications professionals in the ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ world.

Firstly, don’t forget that the liberal elite – from the traditional media and established politicians through to academics and Hollywood actors – are considered to be the enemy. Trump and Chavez owe their ascent to power to an astute use of polarisation, creating a them versus us narrative. Resist the temptation to launch personal attacks that only reinforce this simplistic ‘David vs Goliath’ narrative.

Secondly, avoid showing contempt for supporters. Claims that the masses fail to understand the reality only plays into populists’ hands. Repetition of bare facts and meaningless statistics is unlikely to win people round. Instead, demonstrate humility and empathy by listening to opposing views and speaking to disaffected citizens using more personal terms.

Thirdly, don’t try and force populists out. The lesson from Venezuela is that attempted coups and calls for impeachment tend to reinforce the incumbent’s position. Instead, build political support from the ground up and follow the democratic process.

If the first 30 days are anything to go by, Trump may well be the master of his own downfall. Controversial border controls, questionable contacts with Russia and bizarre press conferences are already causing him trouble.

But, despite the seeming mayhem, detractors would be wise to remember that the Angry Cheeto is a master of persuasion, as demonstrated during his presidential campaign. His resilience should not be underestimated.

Tempting as it may be, an attack of the luvvies at the Academy Awards may be counterproductive and only strengthen support for the Trump administration. Instead, we must heed lessons from Venezuela, Brexit and elsewhere, and use different communications techniques to counter growing polarisation and the rising influence of echo chambers.

Because despite A-listers best hopes, the final curtain is unlikely to fall on Trump or populism anytime soon.

Simon Maule

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Simon splits his time between our offices in Leeds and London. He formerly ran the UK corporate comms practice at Gavin Anderson & Company.

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