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Donald Trump, Master Manipulator

Four lessons for the new U.S. president from Putin’s Russia.

February 1, 2017

Four lessons for the new U.S. president from Putin’s Russia.

As pundits grapple to find analytical frameworks to explain Trump’s PR strategies, the references to Putin become ever more frequent.

It is not surprising then that Trump’s eager adaptation of the playbook of manipulating public opinion in Russia raise red flags about the new U.S. President.

Based on the Russian practice, there are four notable strategies for manipulation:

  • shift the focus away from the criticism on to the accuser
  • prioritize issues of misconduct over policy substance
  • invent enemies at home and abroad and
  • cosy up to the intelligence community.

None of these strategies are illegal per se. They are, however, highly effective in deflecting public attention and crafting the public discourse in a way that could undermine democracy – while preserving its facade.

1. Personalize criticism

One of the most important rules for manipulating public opinion and creating a “post-truth” climate is to consistently deflect the attention from the criticism to the person making it.

That is standard practice in Russia. Whenever a government official is criticized in the media, it is very common for that official to attack the person making the accusation – rather than respond to the particular accusation.

This strategy shifts the public debate on personalities and away from policies. Political leaders have a natural advantage in fighting a battle along personality lines because they are in the public spotlight by default.

More importantly, a debate on personalities frees the incumbent from having to account for concrete actions and observable facts. In light of this strategy, Trump’s war with the media is right on target.

Trump craftier than the Russians

In fact, Trump actually improves on the Russian model. He has discovered a way to delegitimize the media without either owning large shares in the media market (as Berlusconi does) or controlling the media through the state (Putin´s modus operandi).

His proposition that the journalists are “the most dishonest human beings on earth” constitutes the foundation of this PR strategy.

2. Focus on conduct over substance

If Putin’s playbook is any indicator, we would expect that Trump would select carefully the issues which are floated for public discussion.

More importantly, he would prioritize issues of institutional or personal misconduct in an official capacity – corruption, inappropriate use of power – over issues of policy substance.

Issues of institutional misconduct are morally subjective and allow for the more distant relationship with reality that Trump craves.

The incident of discussing crowd sizes on Trump’s second day in office ought to have demonstrated to him that he needs to focus on issues, which are harder to align with data, which are observable and accessible by the public.

Instead, he transformed the factual issue of crowd size into the fact-free moral issue of the media trying to “demean that crowd and to demean the people that came to Washington” – which would be an inappropriate use of the media’s power.

As in rule one, it becomes about the accuser, not about who is actually correct or wrong.

3A. Love to have enemies

What has worked effectively for Putin is to have or create enemies, both abroad and at home. The mechanism that makes the image of the enemy such a great instrument for manipulating public opinion is very simple.

It is much easier to rally coalitions of hate than coalitions of respect. Regardless of its origins, hate is a more unifying force than respect.

The enemies abroad help deflect attention from the problems at home. For a long time, Putin’s regime has thrived on the narrative that Russia is threatened by the West.

The Cold War rhetoric was probably a major factor for prolonging the life of communism as the antithesis of the “rotten capitalism.”

The immediate implication of this PR rule is that, since Russia is no longer a suitable candidate for an enemy, the United States needs to create new enemies, with China and the European Union being in the running.

3B. Opposition – for show purposes

As far as the enemies at home are concerned, it is incorrect to say that domestic opposition serves no purpose in political manipulation. Putin likes to maintain the bare minimum of political opposition in order to create the illusion of having a contest in elections.

For Trump, domestic enemies are an even bigger must-have. As a result of his “enemies” attacks, he acquires a human face and a status of a victim.

Both of those are essential mechanisms for Trump. Along with the populist rhetoric and his lack of political experience, they help him align his celebrity status with his image of the defender of the poor.

This mechanism of self-victimization resolves the apparent paradox in which voters who have been badly hurt by economic developments can identify with a leader who has arguably accrued a fortune during the same time span.

4. Keep the intel community close by

A fourth rule of thumb for manipulating public opinion is to keep the intelligence community at arm’s length. Putin’s propaganda machine thrives on a large database of blackmail “kompromats” gathered by his ex-colleagues from the intelligence community.

Trump does not have similar long-standing ties with the intelligence services. However, his choice to pay a visit the CIA headquarters on his second day in office, is telling.

So is his choice to keep FBI director James Comey, who sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee in regard to the Clinton email investigation just 19 days before the election.

This signals his acknowledgement that having access to secret information is of profound importance to him in order to succeed with the kind of political manipulation he envisions and adores.

Time to get real

If we want to be vigilant for Putin-like signs of manipulation, we must finally consider seriously the reality. Whether we like it or not, Trump is

  • a masterful public manipulator
  • an effective speaker and
  • considered a charismatic personality by a sizeable part of the American electorate.
    Indulging in speculative scenarios about Trump’s possible impeachment or sustaining indignation that “this can’t possibly be happening” helps little in explaining what is happening now.
  • Takeaways

    Trump’s eager adaptation of the playbook of manipulating public opinion in Russia raises red flags about him.

    Political leaders have a natural advantage in fighting a battle along personality lines.

    It is easier to rally coalitions of hate than coalitions of respect. Hate is a more unifying force than respect.