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One Big Question: Is Donald Trump America's first "viral president?"

One Big Question: Is Donald Tr...
Did Trump take America's highest office by "going viral?"
Did Trump take America's highest office by "going viral?"
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Did Trump take America's highest office by "going viral?"
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Did Trump take America's highest office by "going viral?"

Last week Donald Trump defied expectations to become America's 45th president. While some are still scratching their heads over the victory, at least one man has a theory that Trump won by following the same rules that makes any content go viral in today's connected world. Here's what Ben Kaplan the CEO of public-relations firm PR Hacker had to say in this installment of our regular feature: One Big Question.

When Donald Trump sent a thunderbolt to the Democratic and Republican political establishment on Tuesday night, it was more than just a stunning political upset – it marked a fundamental shift in how political campaigns at every level will soon be fought and won. So how did he do it? Why did a 70-year-old real estate tycoon with a quick Twitter finger become the poster boy for the most far-reaching viral political movement in modern US history?

At my firm, PR Hacker, we know a thing or two about how to spread ideas in scrappy and surprising ways: We're the ones hired to help brands like Budweiser, Milk-Bone, Smucker's, and Del Monte create marketing content that can spread quickly and "go viral." Trump's meteoric rise was built on the same new rules that govern our everyday work. Here's how he did it:

1. Viral emotions triggered high Trump voter turnout

In the final math, Trump's ability to trigger and sustain viral emotions (like anger and anxiety) mattered more than Clinton's sophisticated "ground game" and high TV ad spending in driving voter turnout. By repeatedly activating emotions like anger and anxiety – which along with "awe" comprise a trifecta of the most powerful viral emotions – Trump was able to compel his supporters to flood the polls even without much logistical support. Note that Trump wasn't the first candidate to capitalize on a new communication channel: FDR's Fireside Chats leveraged the sensory power of radio; JFK's televised debates showcased his photogenic charisma; Obama's use of social media gave voters new ways to interact and participate. For Trump, it was the rise of "viral PR" – the use of online and offline communication channels to activate emotions that cause group actions.

2. Negative news strengthened Trump's position

Trump's high frequency of controversial tweets and comments made him stronger in the aggregate because they usurped the news cycle while reminding voters that Trump is above all else a non-establishment outsider (the key message of this nontraditional election cycle). Why did these controversies fail to take down Trump when they would ordinarily kill the chances of any other candidate? Again, it was because of his high emotional activation: Even when Trump's individual controversies hurt him substantially (our data indicated that Trump's video scandal had 20x more online chatter than the "Brangelina divorce"), the scandals didn't pack a knockout punch because of the other message being communicated – that the billionaire populist is a political outsider who doesn't talk like a politician. The result: Trump supporters dug in even deeper in their support of him (especially when the news cycle shifted back to Clinton) because they were already so emotionally invested in him and his political movement.

3. Message simplicity made Trump's ideas stick

Trump's battle-cry to "build the wall" and implement "America first" foreign policy could be understood by voters in five seconds flat – and proved far easier to spread by word-of-mouth than Clinton's equivalent five-point plan. Consider the single most viral issue of the 2016 presidential campaign: Trump's wall with Mexico. Not only could building a border wall be visualized by anyone in five seconds flat, but it also symbolized Trump's tough stand on illegal immigration in a surprising way that would never be suggested by an ordinary politician. As a result, Trump was able to promulgate a trending viral story that sheathed his "outsider" and " tough fighter" message in a single understandable issue. The ironic aspect of all of this, of course, is that America's first viral president and most famous Twitter user is a septuagenarian born long before the invention of social media. It's no accident that for decades Trump has reportedly clipped newspaper articles by hand, written short quips on them in a black felt marker, and distributed these annotated musings by mail to friends and adversaries alike. Trump was tweeting before there was Twitter.

12 comments
Terence Kuch
Good points, but I think that millions of people were prepared to accept a Clinton presidency but just wanted to show their displeasure at the entire sodding political mess by voting for Trump, that is, protesting and not really expecting him to win. Surprise! (Like Brexit.)
Lbrewer42
The ONLY people who were surprised Trump won were: 1. People like me who thought the system was so badly corrupted that the idea of voting was only so people thought they still had a voice (like obama's last election). 2. People who actually are brainwashed enough to believe the media's polls. Wake up those of you who were surprised b/c of number 2. The reason your beloved media posts those polls is not for reality. The reason they make those numbers up is to try to discourage the other political party's supporters from voting at all b/c the numbers are to attempt to brainwash Americans that its fruitless to oppose the media's preference. if this angers you - ask yourself this question - why were the "facts" of the poll numbers being shown misleading to the point ANYONE would have had cause to be surprised? Doesn't it prove to you the polls are taken from a skewed group?
CesareRenzi
It's sad to see that the same tactics that brought up last century's monsters are still widely applied now. Trump isn't Hitler, he is far too cartoonish for that. He is a bit like Mussolini, a clown given power. Oh I'm sorry, I suppose this would be best expressed with something along the lines of: "Viral? More like HERPES! HURR DURR!"
minivini
Well, in many ways, he does behave like a virus...
Danbranch
The silent majority watched as school districts changed restrooms to allow men to use ladies room based on how they present (?) that day. They watched as Bill sodomized a child in the white house. They watched while speaking up (when you do not agree) was turned into something evil that usually ended with and "ist". They watched the media repeat over and over how Trump was a bad man and how prepared Hilary was for the position. One day a Lady will become president, one deserving and honest that represents her constituents. One with moral fiber and a real resume of serving the country.
Bob Flint
This is new technology??
sk8dad
Danbranch, "One with moral fiber and a real resume of serving the country." ...so let's just pick the other guy who has a proven track record of going bankrupt, pays no taxes, brags about his own sexual assult exploits, has no policy plans beyond rhetoric and slogans, praises and promotes violence upon those who disagree, has the diplomacy skills of a toddler, has had children out of wedlock, is now on his third wife and counting, openly invites a foreign power to interfere with US elections, has no respect for the First Amendment, thinks racisim is justified, wants to isolate the US from the global economy. ...and what of his rhetoric? "will run country like a business" -- like going bankrupt 6 times? "make America great again" -- to the legendary "Leave it to Beaver" time when upper class white males controlled everything? "build a wall and make Mexico pay for it" -- and if they don't should we bomb the snot out of them? "all Muslims are terrorists" -- just like "all Irish are drunks", "all Japanese are spies", "all Polish are stupid", "all Italians are dirty", "all Jews are Saboteurs", "all Germans are Nazis", and "all Black people aren't people"? Okay, I see your reasoning.
CharlieSeattle
What the Never Trump'ers don't seem to understand is that they say they are fighting for conservative ideological purity, while they are putting a final nail in its coffin. They think they are protecting the Constitution and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. They forget that the Constitution came years after the Declaration of Independence and the launch of the Revolution. The revolution was not at all about ideological purity. it was about freedom from government tyranny. We are back at ground zero, folks. We don't have the luxury today to make a play for ideological purity. Our government is not threatened, it has already been taken over by a corrupt, tyrannical political (and global/industrial) establishment. Our fight is against government tyranny, just as it was at the beginning. Trump is the leader of that fight, not the purist talk radio show hosts who are panicking because their little fiefdoms are in jeopardy. If the Founding Fathers were alive today, every one of them would surely vote for Trump, and fully endorse, support and promote him. What the heII are you fools thinking? This is not about you remaining pertinent. it is about saving the country that you profess to be concerned about!
Stephen N Russell
Yes, his online presence vs controlled media won Him votes. But polling is & was skewed & inaccurate, need major revisions.
Ro-he-Dutchman
Interestingly nobody seems to notice that Hillary actually got more votes. How democratic is that?