Picture the scene: You are at a dinner party. The guests are drawn broadly from your own social circle and the conversation is flowing. As the night goes on, the debate on a particular topic is becoming increasingly contentious with the more talkative and erudite speakers beginning to monopolize the conversation. You are growing tired of the topic and would prefer to change the subject but can’t get a word in edgeways. Suddenly and without warning, you reach into your bag, pull out a dead cat and throw it on the table. Stunned, your guests stop talking for several moments until one of them exclaims “oh God, there is a dead cat on the table!!” Nobody can remember what they had previously been talking about and all anyone can talk about for the rest of the evening is the dead cat on the table. The dead cat has served your purpose. As David Brent might say: “get their attention...”
The “dead cat strategy” will be familiar to virtually anyone with a passing interest in modern British or Australian politics. Its chief proponent, Lynton Crosby, has championed its use to great effect in campaigns ranging from that of former Australian Prime Minister Michael Howard to the Conservative General Election victory in 2015. In single issue campaigns such as recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and, to a lesser extent, the 2015 general election (which was effectively characterized by the Conservatives as a referendum on Ed Miliband’s competence) the “dead cat strategy” can be devastatingly effective. No better was this evidenced that in the success of the Leave campaign during the recent EU referendum. Losing on substantive economic arguments? Simple. Take a barely justifiable and inflated figure representing the UK’s supposed contribution to the EU budget, plaster it on the side of a bus and drive it around the country thus guaranteeing widespread media coverage. The other side will be forced to engage, putting them on the defensive and undermining their own economic arguments. Unethical? Perhaps. Successful? Undoubtedly.
And so we move to Donald Trump’s campaign. Consistently derided as a candidate, his intellect and competence have been continually called into question. His substantive policy positions are virtually non-existent, with policy announcements instead taking the form of meandering and rambling rants against some perceived enemy or “loser”. His only consistent positions have verged from the laughable (ending free trade, imposing punitive tariffs on America’s neighbours and threatening to start a trade war with China) to the offensive (banning Muslims from entering the US) to the impossible (building a 2,000 mile wall across the US-Mexico border).
However, Trump is winning. By a lot. He has quite possibly the largest mandate from primary voters of any Republican candidate for President in US history. Cleary therefore, his campaign has been an enormous success. Have we misjudged the Donald?
Ted Cruz, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination before being vanquished by Trump, has estimated that Trump has received approximately $2 billion of free media advertising from news networks to date. Dubbed “Lyin’ Ted” by the Trump campaign, Cruz has complained bitterly of the mainstream media’s seeming desperation to televise and publicize Trump’s every public pronouncement. Detailed policy discussions have been given second billing to childish insults and outlandish claims. In the increasingly fractured world of news media coverage with viewer attention spans waning accordingly, the sound-bite becomes king. Serious but dour politicos and beltway insiders like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Cruz himself have quite simply been unable to adapt.
And this is the brilliance of the Trump campaign. Sensing the general mood of the country, angry and disillusioned with politics as usual, Trump needed to present himself as the outsider. Without the experience or ability to compete with his competitors at a level requiring serious and reasoned political discourse, Trump simply resorted to the dead cat strategy. Dialed up to 11.
Announcing your campaign? Condemn Mexicans as criminals and rapists and declare an intention to build a 2,000 foot wall along the border.
Campaign stagnating? Propose banning all Muslims from the United States.
Facing difficult questions from the media? Make fun of a disabled journalist.
Criticized by party elders? Mock them for being captured as a POW during the Vietnam war.
Unable to compete in serious and substantive debate with your more experienced opponents? Pithily denounce them as “liars”, “low energy” and “crooked”.
Allied with a steady stream of consciousness series of musings and insults to 10 million twitter followers and you have a text-book example of how to dominate the media cycle in 2016.
In many ways, the Trump campaign for President has been one of the most remarkable election campaigns in modern history. Perhaps not since JFK has a presidential candidate adapted so presciently to evolving technology and methods of communication. To enter the race along with 16 more established, more competent and, despite Trump’s personal fortune, better funded candidates and win so convincingly is testament to his success.
And Trump’s campaign shows no sign of abandoning the tactic that has already delivered the most unlikely of victories in the Republican nomination contest.
We have even seen it in action during the Republican convention this week. With dissent and unrest on the convention floor gathering and the #NeverTrump elements of various States’ delegations threatening a walk out, the prospect of a Republican party civil war being played out on national television seemed likely. Conveniently however, Trump’s wife Melania appeared to plagiarize Michelle Obama’s speech made at the Democratic convention 8 years previously. So blatant as to be an obvious Trump ploy, it appears nonetheless to have been successful.
The headline of the BBC’s report from the first day of the convention? “Trump’s wife accused of copying first lady”…
Perhaps I am giving Donald Trump too much credit? Don’t take it from me:
“The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”
- Donald J. Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal
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