It’s not just our colleagues in New York and San Francisco that are fascinated by the American Presidential Election, we’re all busy obsessing about the most talked about race for the White House any of us have ever witnessed. Whatever your politics, there’s no denying that Clinton vs Trump is pure box office.
While there have been so many memorable, and frankly fascinating, moments so far, one of the things that has been most interesting from a communications perspective is Donald Trump’s seeming impenetrability to traditional media attacks.
And let’s face it, Democrat or Republican, everyone is attacking Trump. When some of your closest allies include Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Vladimir Putin, you know you’re not the choice of the American establishment.
But Presidential Elections are supposed to be bruising right? You put your whole life, family, achievements and beliefs in the spotlight and ask the general public to validate you or tear you to pieces. Just ask Howard Dean how devastating it can be when the media turns against you, and he didn’t even get out of the Democratic Primaries.
Hillary Clinton certainly knows she’s in a race. She knows that she’s facing the most intense media scrutiny she can subject herself too. Questions about her physical health, email leaks and controversial speaking engagements have all hurt Clinton’s campaign. Her appeal to key demographics and her overall polling has tended to dip in line with these attacks.
Conversely, Trump not only seems to be impervious to media attacks but seems to revel in them, often entrenching himself further – just look at his ongoing spat with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Questions about his business investments, charitable foundations, foreign policy inexperience and attitude to women have dogged the campaign but none seem to have done the kind of damage that many would expect. Sure, his team have to do some behind the scenes rebuttals but on the surface they seem far less overworked than Hillary’s advisors.
For example, at time of writing the hashtag #LastTimeTrumpPaidTaxes is trending, following an anonymous tip to the New York Times that Trump might not have paid federal income tax for around 20 years. While not strictly illegal, this is the kind of thing that should cause moral outrage among Trump’s law abiding, tax paying blue collar supporters. But with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie already out spinning that this demonstrates the “genius” of Trump, who would bet against the incident passing without causing him a single sleepless night – if anything it probably feeds his anti-establishment hyper-persona.
So, from a communications perspective, what would it be like to work for Donald Trump? Is the ideal spokesperson someone you can throw to the media and ask to shoot-from-the-hip in Trump’s redoubtable style, always safe in the knowledge that whatever is said, there should be minimal comeback?
It’s certainly possible to see the attraction. However, watching your boss leaping across the issue landscape, never quite landing the key messages you had prepared and agreed, would be a source of major frustration for your average comms pro. We put great stock and effort into setting the parameters of debate, honing and testing messaging and employing techniques for engaging audiences.
In what seems like a lifetime ago, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was often referred to by political opponents as “Teflon Tony” because no matter what they did, attacks just didn’t seem to stick to him. The difference with Trump is that Blair also ran a tightly controlled media machine, was consistent in his messaging and is now widely recognised as one of the finest political communicators of his generation. Eventually the attacks began to land but for a while he was the golden boy of world politics, happy to rub shoulders with Presidents and pop stars.
In answer to “what can dent the Donald”, my suspicion is that it would take an act of stupendous hypocrisy or hubris to sink the good ship Trump. He’d need to betray those who see him as the vanguard for their own anti-establishment sentiment. For now, he just has to keep going and hope that his invincibility lasts a little longer because under the ego, bluster and posturing, there is a decided lack of substance to offer the American public. Regardless of what you think of Hillary Clinton, she certainly can’t be accused of lacking substance.
Whatever happens in the remainder of the campaign, rest assured we’ll be there with you, engrossed in the spectacle and strangely transfixed by the power of ‘the Donald’.