A lot of ink is being poured to describe President Trump’s communication style. One thing most observers seem to agree upon is that it has proven to be largely effective. The main factors usually include: Consistency with a meta-story (‘America First’); an anti-intellectual approach expressed by a very, very simple language; a firm positioning as a ‘different’ leader; and a heavy reliance on so-called ‘emotional truths’.
As the communication specialist Frank Luntz puts it ‘It is not what you say, it is how you make people feel.’ It should not be a surprise then that what President Trump says and writes should not be taken ‘literally’ as conceded by many of his supporters. Indeed, his communication is essentially meant to target his constituencies’ emotional truths.
But what are they? Personal (e.g. childhood memories) as well as collective history (e.g. 9/11) and experiences (e.g. Olympic games) are colored by feelings. Through these feelings, facts turn into emotional truths to create a mental model of reality. These emotional truths are deeply ingrained in a person, organization or nation, and represent an integral part of any entity’s psyche or culture. They are powerful, often raw guiding values and principles which tend to be unconscious by nature.
Art targets emotional truths. Movies which directly appeal to inner values can lead an entire audience to sob. In fact, this can often be achieved cheaply, with an audience trapped by simple, yet overwhelming feelings. Marketing and brands make a business of appealing to masses through the successful targeting of emotional truths (check the rise of ‘sadvertising’ here). Trial lawyers seek to leverage jurors’ emotional truths to win their case, beyond the evidence. Corporate leaders tap into emotional truths to create a culture and a team spirit to drive an entire organization. And politicians do appeal to emotional truths to engineer some fervor and gather support for a project.
Emotional truths can be used and abused. Where is the dividing line? It is not straightforward to locate it. Having said so, the fact that ‘post-truth’ was the word of the year 2016 for the Oxford Dictionaries suggests that the line towards the abuse is being increasingly crossed. ‘Post-truth’ is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs’.
Disinformation, and the general tolerance for it, may be reaching new heights. The fact is, ‘What you say’ does not mean much, if anything, any longer. Without condoning the current trends, there is no point in moaning about them as if the world is about to fall into a new era of darkness. For there is still a simple truth that prevails: ‘It’s not what you say, it is what you do.’